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Interior Department Is Filled With Ex-Lobbyists Who Are Cozy with Their Former Employers, New Ethics Complaint Shows

by , as published on The Intercept

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…

Zinke’s long list of unethical practices still haunt the DoI

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)

https://theintercept.com/2019/02/20/interior-department-ethics-violations/?fbclid=IwAR3CGvEMphCxwDrPLlxzFt5Z-RMHhTv_MzwHD4vHSJiAYzR4ghYhkja4TRo

3 replies »

  1. From MOTHER JONES

    These Emails Show Exactly How Science Was Wiped Out at the Department of the Interior
    Clearing the way for drones, jet skis, and luxury developments in our national parks.
    ELIZABETH SHOGREN

    The emails show that Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s principal deputy solicitor, played a key role in reversing the order. Jorjani is a Trump appointee who was an attorney from 2010 to 2016 for foundations funded by the Koch brothers, fossil-fuel billionaires who support the spread of free-market principles throughout government. During the Bush administration, Jorjani was an Interior Department counselor and chief of staff.

    https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2018/07/these-emails-show-exactly-how-science-was-wiped-out-at-the-department-of-the-interior/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Trump Just Announced His Pick to Replace Ryan Zinke at the Interior Department
    David Bernhardt has been described as a “walking conflict of interest.”
    REBECCA LEBER

    Interior watchdogs have described Bernhardt as a “walking conflict of interest” and “the guy doing the dirty work.” And he has earned a reputation for his expertise in not leaving a paper trail while he has recused himself from matters relating to his former clients.
    Bernhardt’s understanding of the department’s workings and the allies he’s installed in key political posts enable him to steer its complex network of decentralized offices while leaving few fingerprints. His calendars often have little detail in them; the environmental group Western Values Project has noted how few of his emails turn up in their frequent Freedom of Information Act requests to the Interior. “Kind of amazing that he can do anything without leaving a paper trail behind him,” said Aaron Weiss, media director of Center for Western Priorities, another conservation group.

    “Bernhardt knows where all the skeletons are and the strings to pull,” Obama-era career Interior official Joel Clement told me. Unlike Zinke, whose well-cultivated cowboy persona is “all hat, no cattle,” Clement says, “the real work is being done by Bernhardt.”

    https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/02/david-bernhardt-trump-interior-pick-conflict-of-interest-to-replace-zinke/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. From DEPARTMENT OF INFLUENCE

    Kathleen “Kathy” Benedetto

    Senior Advisor to the Bureau of Land Management

    Kathleen “Kathy” Benedetto is serving as a Senior Advisor to the Bureau of Land Management.
    Before co-founding a nonprofit called the Women’s Mining Coalition, an organization that lobbied Congress on behalf of the mining industry, Benedetto worked nearly two decades for the mining industry. She was part of a coalition that wanted to “completely throw out” the Endangered Species Act. Benedetto worked as a field coordinator for Montanans for Common Sense Water Laws, an industry-funded group that opposed clean water initiatives unfavorable to mining companies. She then became the program director at the National Wilderness Institute, which was created to “roll back wetlands regulation.” Next, Benedetto moved to Washington D.C. to work for the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, where she stayed for 13 years, during which time she frequented trips sponsored by mining and oil industries. Since 2016, Benedetto has been a government affairs specialist at Bioxy Research, which provides “services for the oil and gas, refining and chemicals, mining, agriculture and construction industries.”
    Special Interests
    https://departmentofinfluence.org/person/kathleen-kathy-benedetto/

    Like

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