Dem lawmakers call for investigation into Interior officials over alleged ethics violations
A pair of Democratic lawmakers are calling on the Interior Department watchdog to look into ethical concerns involving a number of key agency officials.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) wrote a letter to Interior’s acting Inspector General Mary Kendall on Friday, asking her office to investigate reports of “ethics irregularities” for senior Interior officials, specifically acting Secretary David Bernhardt.
The letter cited a February New York Time article that found that as deputy secretary, Bernhardt helped push a specific Endangered Species Act policy related to the delta smelt that will directly benefit a former client of his.
Bernhardt, a former lobbyist, previously worked for a group of California farmers who opposed protections on the finger-sized fish in order to gain access to more irrigation water in the state’s central valley. Since working at Interior, Bernhardt has been hard at work to strip those protections, according to the Times.
Although Interior officials said Bernhardt was granted verbal authorization by ethics officials to participate in policy meetings on the matters related to his former client, lawmakers said a lack of formal authorization is troubling.
“Reliance on verbal authorization, with no supporting documentation, is not likely to ensure that adequate steps have been taken to eliminate any conflicts of interest with work done for former clients or employers, particularly when it involves a controversial issue that was the subject of prior litigation and lobbying by the Acting Secretary,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter.
Bernhardt has routinely received criticism for apparent conflicts of interest. Prior to joining the Interior Department in 2017, Bernhardt was an oil and gas lobbyist. Interior oversees oil and gas leasing on public land and in offshore waters. The newly nominated Interior Secretary has so many conflicts of interest from his past positions that he carries a card listing them all.
The letter calls for Interior’s inspector general to audit the policy changes Bernhardt has participated in since joining Interior “to determine whether his actions comply with federal ethics requirements
The lawmakers in their letter additionally note a complaint from the Campaign Legal Center that claims to document ethics violations by six senior Interior officials who interacted with former clients or employers. They call for the inspector general’s office to also investigate the senior officials and their meetings.
“We take seriously any reports of ethical wrongdoing at the Department,” they wrote.
The inspector general’s office said it received the request and is going through the standard review process for any Congressional requests.
The Interior Department said it does not comment on matters before the inspector general.