Dem asks for probe into Trump pick's involvement in halting endangered species report

A Democratic lawmaker has asked the Interior Department's watchdog to look into reports that President TrumpDonald John TrumpNASA exec leading moon mission quits weeks after appointment The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE's nominee to lead the agency directly intervened to stop the release of a study linking the effects of three chemicals on endangered species.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenManning: Additional Assange charges are feds 'using the law as a sword' Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access Democratic senator warns of threat to press freedom in new Assange charges MORE (D-Ore.) wrote a letter to Interior's acting Inspector General Mary Kendall asking for an investigation into allegations that the agency's acting chief, David Bernhardt, stopped the release of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) study.

Bernhardt’s intervention was outlined as part of more than 84,000 pages of documentation recently released through a Freedom of Information Act request to The New York Times.

Mr. Bernhardt, in his role as Deputy Secretary of the Department of the Interior, directly intervened with Fish and Wildlife Services officials to block the release of a report on toxic pesticides," Wyden wrote in his letter.

The FWS study commissioned under the Obama administration looked at the health effects three known toxic chemicals had on various endangered species. The study concluded that two of the chemicals that are used in well-known pesticides were so toxic that they would “jeopardize the continued existence” of nearly 1,200 endangered plants and animals, the Times found.

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Bernhardt, who was nominated in February to permanently serve as Interior secretary following the resignation of Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeSenate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Interior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? MORE, testified in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday for his confirmation hearing.

During the hearing, Wyden pressed Bernhardt on his past roles working as a lobbyist for energy and agriculture companies.

Wyden said the acting secretary had so many conflicts of interest that, if confirmed as Interior secretary, he’d likely get bored due to all the meetings he’d have to recuse himself from.

Asked about his role keeping the FWS study from being released, Bernhardt told the Senate panel that his decision was backed by Interior’s legal counsel.

“You’re dealing with some of the most difficult consultations on the planet and when I read the document my reaction to it was this is really an interesting draft but it clearly didn’t have any legal review and in our world you can’t ignore the law and come up with a scheme,” Bernhardt said.

“I basically said let’s go kick it over to career lawyers, have them look at it, and their assessment was exactly like mine.”

Bernhardt’s past work as an oil lobbyist has come into play before, leading to various questions about decisions he’s helped make while at Interior.

As deputy administrator under Zinke, Bernhardt also helped the administration release restrictions around the habitat for a small endangered fish species in California’s Central Valley. The Times was first to report that one of Bernhardt’s former clients was a leading lobbyist to ease those restrictions.

“I am deeply troubled by what appears to be a political appointee meddling in the scientific process at USFWS in its analysis of toxic pesticides and their effect on the environment and hundreds of endangered species,” Wyden wrote in his letter to the inspector general's office.

An inspector general spokesperson said the office received the letter from Wyden midday and will be reviewing his request.

The senator asked the watchdog office specifically to look into the role Bernhardt and others played in “obstructing” the FWS analysis, the role he played in changing a FWS policy that elevates the burden of proof that a pesticide affects a species, and what role other political appointees played in the decision making process.