Energy & Environment

New Interior chief nominee calls agency’s ‘ethics challenges’ an ‘inherited’ mess

Bureau of Reclamation

President Trump’s new pick to head the Interior Department is blaming the agency’s ethical pitfalls on a “mess” inherited by the Obama administration, according to an internal letter obtained by The Hill.

In an internal letter sent to Interior staff Friday, David Bernhardt blamed Obama’s former National Park’s director and others for “an avalanche of ethical misconduct” and vowed to turn the agency around by strengthening its ethics program.

Formally nominated by Trump Monday to head the Interior Department, Bernhardt has been serving as Acting Interior Secretary since Ryan Zinke departed in January on the heels of a number of ethics, and potentially criminal, investigations.

{mosads}Bernhardt does not reference Zinke in the memo.

“Sadly, our organization’s ethics challenges were part of a mess that we inherited. The last decade of the Inspector General’s reports read like an avalanche of ethical misconduct. No bureau is exempt from criticism,” Bernhardt wrote in his letter.

Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist, has served as Zinke’s Interior deputy secretary since 2017.

Previously he did multiple stints at the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, representing clients including Eni Petroleum, Sempra Energy, Halliburton Energy Services, Targa Energy, Noble Energy and the Westlands Water District.

Under ethics standards, he has recused himself from matters involving so many former clients that he carries a card with him listing the recusals. 

“I personally devoted a tremendous amount of effort to transforming and enhancing the ethics infrastructure throughout our organization,” Bernhardt wrote of his time as deputy secretary at Interior.

“It has been badly neglected for far too long.”

In the staff memo Bernhardt singles out Jon Jarvis, President Obama’s NPS director, who was found to have violated ethics rules according to the Interior’s Office of Inspector General in 2016.

Jarvis wrote a book about the national parks and promised to donate any proceeds to the National Park Foundation — the official non-profit fundraising arm of NPS. However, he failed to seek ethics advice on the matter before promising the donations. He later acknowledged he should have.

“When leaders are not seeking ethics counsel, why should anyone else?” Bernhardt wrote.

Jarvis and the Interior department did not immediately return a request for comment from The Hill.

Interior has plans to increase its ethics focus and will soon double its career ethics staff from the numbers hired under the Obama administration, according to Bernhardt.

New roles will include a Designated Agency Ethics Official and one alternate, a Financial Disclosure Supervisor, an Ethics Education and Training Supervisor, and Deputy Ethics Counselors at NPS, the Bureau of Land Management and other offices.

“I have been focused on putting the pieces in place to dramatically transform a culture of ethics avoidance into one of ethical compliance,” Bernhardt wrote.

“Rather than give rhetorical lip service to ethical conduct, I have taken action. I am committed to leaving this Department better than I found it when I first started.”

— Timothy Cama contributed to this story.

Tags Donald Trump Ryan Zinke

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