'Awkward' hearing will vet Interior lawyer and the official slated to investigate him

'Awkward' hearing will vet Interior lawyer and the official slated to investigate him
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A Senate panel will hold a confirmation hearing Thursday for two top posts at the Department of Interior: the agency's top lawyer and the inspector general who is likely to investigate him amid the legal and ethical issues facing Secretary David Bernhardt.

Both nominees — Daniel Jorjani, already the Trump administration’s the top lawyer for the department, and Mark Lee Greenblatt, who works in the Commerce Department's inspector general's office — are scheduled to appear before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where they will be seated next to each other at the witness table for questioning from lawmakers.

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“It’ll be as interesting or as awkward as the senators choose to make it,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director at The Center for Western Priorities, a public lands advocacy group. "Daniel Jorjani has been at David Bernhardt’s side the entire time. So all the investigations into Bernhardt touch Jorjani some way."

“Part of the irony is that Jorjani will be up there testifying sitting next to the guy whose job it will be to investigate Jorjani,” he added.

Jorjani will likely face a long line of questioning about his current role as principal deputy solicitor. With no solicitor confirmed during Trump’s tenure, Jorjani has been the top lawyer for the department, advising both Bernhardt and former Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule Future of controversial international hunting council up in the air Overnight Energy: Advisory panel pushes park service to privatize campgrounds | Dems urge Perry to keep lightbulb efficiency rules | Marshall Islands declares national climate crisis MORE on a number of legal and ethical issues.

He has also served as the chief public records officer for the department.

Anne Weismann, chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) counsel for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said having a top department lawyer oversee records requests is highly unusual.

“Agencies typically strive to have a line of separation between political level people and the FOIA processing staff,” she said, adding that doing otherwise can taint the process. “We’re already talking about an agency that’s taking affirmative steps to hide their actions from the public.”

Faith Vander Voort, a spokeswoman for Interior, said the positions were combined “to demonstrate the Department's commitment to meeting the requirement that the American people have access to information regarding how the government conducts official business.”

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse passes bill taking aim at anonymous shell companies Senate Democrats to force vote Wednesday to overturn IRS rules on SALT deduction cap Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Russian, Iranian accounts trying to interfere in 2020 | Zuckerberg on public relations blitz | Uncertainty over Huawei ban one month out MORE (D-Ore.) said ethics issues will play a prominent role in Thursday's hearing.

“Obviously I feel very strongly about this having watched the Bernhardt spectacle,” he told the The Hill.

"Whether it's ethics advice that Bernhardt did or didn’t get from the ethics office regarding his conflicts of interest or then there are the questions around document destruction and Secretary Bernhardt's vanishing calendars,” Weiss said.

Those issues have resulted in a number of investigations. Most recently, outgoing Inspector General Mary Kendell approved investigations into six more Interior employees, in addition to the investigation into Bernhardt.

Jorjani, a former Koch brothers adviser, has also served as the chief FOIA officer for the Interior Department, a job that is usually given to career staff rather than political appointees.

Part of environmental groups’ concerns over Jorjani stem from comments he made regarding that role.

“At the end of the day, our job is to protect the Secretary,” Jorjani said of Zinke in records that were released through a FOIA request.

Greenblatt currently serves as the assistant inspector general for investigations at the Department of Commerce, experience Weiss described as expected for someone nominated to the inspector general position, even if testifying alongside someone he’ll investigate isn’t.