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Interior Dept. Opens Ethics Investigation of Its New Chief, David Bernhardt

Coral Davenport

By Coral Davenport as published in the New York Times

Eight senators, all Democrats, and four government ethics watchdog groups have requested that the Interior Department’s inspector general open formal investigations into various aspects of Mr. Bernhardt’s conduct.

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 28: David Bernhardt, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be Interior Secretary, testifies during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing on March 28, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department’s internal watchdog has opened an investigation into ethics complaints against the agency’s newly installed secretary, David Bernhardt.

Mr. Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and agribusiness industries, was confirmed by the Senate last week to head the agency, which oversees the nation’s 500 million acres of public land and vast coastal waters. He has played a central role in writing policies designed to advance President Trump’s policy of “energy dominance” and expanding fossil fuel exploration. He has been dogged by allegations of ethics violations since joining the Trump administration as the Interior Department’s deputy secretary in 2017.

Eight senators, all Democrats, and four government ethics watchdog groups have requested that the Interior Department’s inspector general open formal investigations into various aspects of Mr. Bernhardt’s conduct. Among the chief complaints have been allegations, revealed by three separate New York Times investigations, that Mr. Bernhardt used his position to advance a policy pushed by his former lobbying client; that he continued working as a lobbyist after filing legal paperwork declaring that he had ceased lobbying; and that he intervened to block the release of a scientific report showing the harmful effects of a chemical pesticide on certain endangered species.

In a letter sent Monday to the senators who filed the ethics complaints, Mary L. Kendall, the deputy inspector general of the Interior Department, wrote that she had received seven complaints from “a wide assortment of complainants alleging various conflicts of interest and other violations” by Mr. Bernhardt, adding that she had “opened an investigation to address them.”

Mr. Bernhardt has maintained that he did not commit any ethical violations and, in fact, has worked to strengthen the culture of ethical compliance at the Interior Department, in part by hiring dozens of new ethics specialists.

Mr. Bernhardt’s spokeswoman, Faith Vander Voort, wrote in a statement, “Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.” She added, “It is important to note that the Department Ethics Office has already conducted a review of many of these accusations at Mr. Bernhardt’s request and determined that Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance.”

A spokesman for the White House declined to comment.

Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has formally requested investigations into Mr. Bernhardt’s conduct, and who pushed for the delay of his Senate confirmation, wrote in a statement: “This is exactly why I wanted a delay in Bernhardt’s consideration. We now have an Interior Secretary who has been on the job for one full business day and is already under investigation.”

The inquiry into Mr. Bernhardt’s activities is the latest in a series of ethics concerns around Mr. Trump’s top energy and environment officials since the beginning of his administration. Mr. Trump’s first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, and his first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, both resigned last year amid allegations of ethics misconduct.

3 replies »

  1. Ethics probes haven’t harmed Zinke so far in the eyes of his new bosses. Evidently now he’s a cryptocurrency expert as well as a geologist and gold mine skid greaser:

    Zinke takes new job with investment firm Artillery One
“In its mission statement, Artillery One says it “advises and funds the next generation of disruptive technologies – connecting capital to these unique opportunities and special situations.”

    Zinke, also a former Montana congressman, is now a senior adviser at Turnberry Solutions, which was formed in 2017 by Jason Osbourne, Mike Rubio and Ryan O’Dwyer, who all worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, according to The Hill.

    Mining project on federal lands hires former Interior head
Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has a new job: a more than 100,000-a-year post with a gold-mining firm thats pursuing project approvals involving the federal agency that Zinke left fewer than four months ago.


  2. National Archives joins investigation into Interior chief’s missing calendars
    he National Archives and Records Administration gave the Interior Department until late April to address Democrats’ allegations that newly confirmed Secretary David Bernhardt may have been destroying his official calendars, according to a letter POLITICO obtained Friday.
    The letter adds new pressure to a department that is facing investigations by House Democrats who question whether Bernhardt has violated federal record-keeping laws. Bernhardt’s existing daily schedule shows that the former fossil fuel and agriculture lobbyist has met with representatives of former clients who stood to gain from Interior’s decisions, but the department has released few details about his activities during about one-third of his days in office.


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