A lengthy ethics complaint filed Feb. 20th by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, outlines “a disturbing pattern of misconduct” at the scandal-plagued Interior Department…
Only a few short weeks after President Donald Trump nominated David Bernhardt, a former oil and agriculture industry lobbyist, to run the Interior Department, the agency is facing a slew of new allegations that top officials violated federal ethics rules by keeping cozy ties to their former employers.
A lengthy ethics complaint filed Wednesday by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, outlines “a disturbing pattern of misconduct” at the scandal-plagued Interior Department, including meetings that violate the White House’s own ethical pledge and good governance standards.
The Campaign Legal Center used public records, some of which were first obtained by The Intercept, to lodge the complaint against six top Interior Department officials, including Benjamin Cassidy, a top official at the department’s external affairs office and former National Rifle Association lobbyist; Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Douglas Domenech; White House liaison Lori Mashburn, a former Heritage Foundation staffer; and others.
The officials are among a little-known but powerful group of Department of Interior political appointees — many of whom joined the agency after careers with fossil fuel groups or conservative lobbying organizations. Amid an environment of persistent ethics issues at the Interior Department, these officials are responsible for the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to roll back environmental protections and open public lands to extractive industry interests.
Even as they’ve succeeded at this effort, however, several of these appointees have struggled to comply with federal ethics rules governing conflicts of interest, drawing intense and unwanted criticism from environmentalists, government watchdog groups, and the general public.
Among other allegations, the Campaign Legal Center contends that some of these officials have apparently used their government positions to provide their former private employers with access and insight into the Interior Department’s activities. Under the White House’s own ethics pledge, executive branch officials are explicitly prohibited for a period of two years from the date of their appointment from meeting or communicating with previous employers to discuss specific policy matters.
“Based on what we know, it appears that top Interior Department officials have violated both the ethics pledge and the requirement that public officials avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” says Delaney Marsco, a legal counsel specializing in ethics at the Campaign Legal Center. “This is a big deal. It not only reveals a pattern of indifference toward ethics at Interior’s highest levels, but it also calls into question the true motives of our public servants tasked with the immense responsibility of managing the country’s natural resources.”
Provided with a detailed query outlining alleged ethical violations, an Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics or make the involved officials available for interviews. “The Department takes ethics agreements very seriously,” said the spokesperson, deputy press secretary Faith Vander Voort. “All Interior political appointees received ethics training from career ethics officials in the fall of 2018. The Department is committed to creating a culture of compliance.”
The allegations, which the Campaign Legal Center filed with the department’s Office of Inspector General, come in the wake of a relentless stream of scandals, investigations, and damaging headlines that have battered the powerful Interior Department.
A Pattern of Ethical Lapses
A sprawling federal agency, the department controls approximately 500 million acres of public land, oversees endangered species programs, administers Native American trust lands, directs crucial scientific research, and controls rich deposits of federally owned oil, gas, and coal, among other essential duties. With roughly 70,000 employees and control over vast swaths of federal land across the country, the Interior Department is a cabinet-level agency whose impact on American life is difficult to overstate.
The most high-profile controversies to trouble the department over the course of the last two years involved former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican who left office in early January amid a torrent of federal investigations into his conduct.
Zinke’s resignation, though, has done little to ease the department’s ethics woes.
Some top officials at the department have been caught in apparent violation of federal ethics rules. Others have interfered with scientific research that the department funds or oversees. Still others have spent their time in office bending government policy to benefit industry lobbyists and conservative operatives.
The new Campaign Legal Center complaint comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Interior Department. On February 4, Trump announced in a tweet that he planned to nominate Bernhardt, a longtime lobbyist for the fossil fuel and agriculture industries, as his next Interior secretary. Bernhardt is currently serving as the Interior Department’s acting secretary and has earned a reputation as a savvy Washington insider with deep ties to corporate interests across the American West.
As he prepares to appear before the Senate for his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt has made moves in recent weeks to rehabilitate the Interior Department’s battered reputation. In a letter sent earlier this month to the entire Interior Department staff, Bernhardt said he had recruited a cohort of new ethics officials in an effort to “dramatically transform a culture of ethics avoidance into one of ethics compliance.”
The Campaign Legal Center’s complaint, though, could undermine Bernhardt’s efforts to clean up the department’s public image. It can be expected to draw renewed attention to ethics problems among top Interior Department officials at a time when the agency is already facing heightened scrutiny from Congress…(CONTINUED)