Interior watchdog launches ethics probe into new secretary

The top watchdog for the Department of Interior has opened up an investigation into newly confirmed Secretary David Bernhardt. 

Deputy inspector general Mary L. Kendall wrote in a letter to lawmakers that the department's Office of Inspector General had received seven complaints alleging conflicts of interest or potential ethics violations by Bernhardt, who was at the time deputy secretary of the department. 

"The Office of Inspector General for the Department of Interior has received seven complaints, including yours, from a wide assortment of complainants alleging various potential conflicts of interest and other violations," Kendall wrote in a letter to Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallNew Mexico senators request probe into militia group detaining migrants Latino group urges state lawmaker to make primary challenge to Democrat for Georgia House seat Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 MORE (D-N.M.) and Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumOvernight Energy: Interior watchdog opens investigation into new secretary | Warren unveils 2020 plan to stop drilling on public lands | Justices reject case challenging state nuclear subsidies | Court orders EPA to re-evaluate Obama pollution rule Interior watchdog launches ethics probe into new secretary EPA chief doubles down on Trump's commitment to fully fund Great Lakes program MORE (D-Minn.). 


"We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them. We will conduct our review as expeditiously and thoroughly as practicable," she added.

Kendall sent a similar letter on Monday to other lawmakers, including Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump pushes back on impeachment talk: 'Tables are finally turning on the Witch Hunt!' Warren unveils plan to cancel student loan debt, create universal free college Moulton enters 2020 White House race MORE (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who had previously raised concerns with the department's inspector general's office about potential conflicts of interest and ethics violations. 

The announcement of a probe comes less than a week after the Senate confirmed Bernhardt to be secretary of the Interior Department. 

Democrats and environmentalists have taken issue with Bernhardt’s lobbying ties as well as policies he’s helped draft as Interior deputy secretary that appear to benefit some former clients.

Under ethics rules, Bernhardt has had to recuse himself from meeting with a number of former clients. But Democrats have repeatedly raised questions about decisions Bernhardt has made as deputy and acting director that benefit former clients.

Udall and McCollum previously requested the Interior Department watchdog investigate reports of “ethics irregularities” for senior Interior officials. 

The letter cited a February New York Times 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. Interior officials said Bernhardt was granted verbal authorization by ethics officials to participate in policy meetings on the matters related to his former client. 

"The Inspector General’s investigation into Secretary Bernhardt’s extensive conflicts of interest is a necessary step to ensure that the public interest is paramount in decision-making at the Interior Department,” Udall said in a statement Monday. 

McCollum added that "it’s important to know that the Inspector General will be looking into whether officials at the Department of the Interior, including the newly confirmed Secretary, may have violated ethics regulations. The Department’s focus should be protecting our public lands and natural resources."

Bernhardt has denied committing ethics violations. Faith Vander Voort, a spokesman, separably told The New York Times on Monday that he is "in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.

"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.”

Also Monday, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) requested that Bernhardt testify before the committee on May 15 regarding ethics issues tied to his schedule and record keeping.

“Secretary Bernhardt has been running the Interior Department for four months now and it is long past time for him to appear before this Committee,” Grivalja said in a release.

Rebecca Beitsch contributed to this report, which was updated at 8:41 p.m.