Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Sunday, February 2, 2014

Gavrila applies management, economics training as attorney for energy firm

Dana Gavrila

Dana Gavrila was surprised the first time she drew on her economics training gained at the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

As a tax attorney for Cheniere Energy in Houston, Texas, the 2012 alum helped to secure private letter rulings on specific tax issues at the state and federal levels.

"Cheniere was the first company in recent history to be granted an export license by the Department of Energy to export natural gas in liquefied form," says Gavrila, who earned dual degrees in public affairs and law. "Because of our unique position as the first company granted this license and because every transaction has potential large tax implications, my job at Cheniere has been pretty interesting and diverse."

Cheniere asked the Internal Revenue Service to rule that liquefying natural gas was a manufacturing process from a tax perspective, thus qualifying the firm for special tax treatment under the law. "This ruling was essential to our investors and stockholders, and the entire process of researching, writing and meeting with the IRS in Washington, D.C., was very educational and gratifying," Gavrila says.

The economics training comes into play in the context of the larger national debate surrounding domestic natural gas prices, Gavrila says. "The debate involves whether the exportation of liquefied natural gas will cause prices to rise, thereby affecting individuals who use natural gas to cook and heat their homes and manufacturing companies that use natural gas as an energy source for their plants. On the other side, exporting LNG should have a positive effect on our trade balance and will create domestic jobs and multiplying economic benefits."

Gavrila is learning a lot about how local governments are run because a lot of Cheniere's tax work deals with local governments. "Most recently I have been working on lining up local tax incentives for a project in Corpus Christi, Texas, which entails many meetings with the elected officials, both from an educational perspective and from a negotiating perspective," Gavrila says. "I find myself recalling some of the lessons from Professor Yackee's Public Management course."

Gavrila's policy background is part of what made her an attractive candidate for Cheniere. She worked as a tax accountant for five years after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003 with a master in professional accounting, a bachelor's degree in business administration and second liberal arts bachelor's degree. "I did the liberal arts degree because the classes were really interesting, and it was a nice way to round out my 'vocational' business classes," she says, adding that she plans to take the certified public accountant exam in 2014. "Now that I am back in the tax field (albeit on the legal side), it makes sense to take the exam."

The dual-degree program in public affairs and law was a good fit for Gavrila's wide intellectual interests. "The flexibility and large diversity of courses at La Follette make it a top policy program," she says. "The core courses were important building blocks, but the ability to take the majority of courses in the fields you were interested in is a huge benefit of La Follette. The quality of professors and other students make the experience that much more enriching. Being in Madison, the state capital, is another great advantage for those looking to work in government."

"I honestly enjoyed my learning experiences at La Follette," Gavrila says. "The diverse policy backgrounds of the other students really taught me a lot about different policy fields that I had never thought about before. I also really liked the collaborative learning environment in most of the classes."

Gavrila received a fellowship to attend the university and then had a project assistantship with La Follette professors Pamela Herd and Donald Moynihan. "The PAship involved researching and collecting data about each state's application process for Medicaid," Gavrila says. "The act of researching so thoroughly and understanding a governmental process translates very well to the work I do as a tax attorney at Cheniere."

These opportunities have prompted Gavrila to donate money to the La Follette School through the University of Wisconsin Foundation. "La Follette had been very generous to me, and I wanted to express my gratitude," she says. "I believe very strongly in the students that La Follette produces, and I want to keep being a part of that process."

Gavrila notes that her current career "kind of happened organically" because of her tax accounting background. "The national economy was in a slump when I graduated, but Houston was holding strong because of the energy market, and when I was offered this opportunity at Cheniere, in my hometown, I decided it was the best place to start the next part of my career," she says.

Eventually she may move into a job more directly involved with public policy. Gavrila enjoys the interplay of law and public policy, and she hopes eventually to tap the quantitative skills she gained at La Follette. "I did like my quantitative classes the most at La Follette because I love math and all related fields," she says.

"Public service is very important to me because I want to be able to contribute more to society than I take from it," she adds, noting that she plans to do pro bono legal work now that she is a member of the Texas Bar. "I am not interested in being complacent and indifferent to my surroundings."