Dems grill top Interior lawyer alongside nominee who will investigate him

Dems grill top Interior lawyer alongside nominee who will investigate him
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats had tough questions Thursday for the nominee to lead the Department of Interior’s legal department and the inspector general nominee who would start the job by investigating him.

Seated together at the witness table at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing were Daniel Jorjani, the Department of Interior’s main legal adviser, and Mark Lee Greenblatt, who has been nominated to take over the office responsible for sorting through a number of potential ethical lapses from Interior’s highest-level employees.

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The committee’s Republican members were largely absent from the meeting as Democrats narrowed in on a variety of ethical issues that have come up at Interior under Jorjani, who has been formally nominated to be Interior’s solicitor but is already serving in the position.

“The way Interior has acted under the Trump administration is the textbook definition of a political cartel, using state resources to help the special interests,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Facebook removes Russian, Iranian accounts trying to interfere in 2020 | Zuckerberg on public relations blitz | Uncertainty over Huawei ban one month out US ban on China tech giant faces uncertainty a month out Hillicon Valley: GOP lawmakers offer election security measure | FTC Dem worries government is 'captured' by Big Tech | Lawmakers condemn Apple over Hong Kong censorship MORE (D-Ore.). “It sure looks like Mr. Jorjani has been a key member of the cartel.”

“Mr. Greenblatt, if you’re confirmed, you’re going to have your work cut out for you,” Wyden said later. “I want to know what you’re going to do to maintain your independence and avoid an appointee like Mr. Jorjani attempting to interfere with your work.”

The hearing provided an interesting look at two roles that are often in conflict.

“It’s certainly not a sleepy office, let’s put it that way,” Greenblatt told The Hill. “There are emerging issues that are of intense public debate.”

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight 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 Senate Dems lose forced vote against EPA power plant rule Schumer seeks focus on health care amid impeachment fever MORE (W.Va.), the top Democrat on the panel, told The Hill he expects both men to be confirmed.

Greenblatt would take over an Inspector General office with a heavy workload. Both former Interior 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 and current Secretary David Bernhardt are under investigation by the office, along with six other high-level officials.

Many environmental groups say Jorjani is at the center of a number of ethical missteps and controversial decisions that have become a focus of investigation.

Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingSenators fear Syria damage 'irreversible' after Esper, Milley briefing Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine Democrats grill Army, Air Force nominees on military funding for border wall MORE (I-Maine) started off his remarks by saying he would support Greenblatt even as he continued to grill Jorjani on past comments he made about the office.

“ ‘OIGs love travel investigations — they’re easy to document and spin in a negative way,’ ” King said reading from one of Jorjani’s emails.

“What the hell do you mean by that?” King asked. “Doesn’t that imply disrespect for the Office of the Inspector General?”

“I can only say I have the highest level of respect for the Office of the Inspector General,” Jorjani said.

“I can only say that’s inconsistent with what you said in your email,” King replied.

Jorjani’s career was dissected by the Democratic members, ranging from his time working for groups backed by the conservative Koch brothers to decisions he has made while working for the department.

Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocrats introduce SWAMP Act to ban meetings with foreign leaders at Trump properties Democrats urge Rick Perry not to roll back lightbulb efficiency rules Overnight Energy: Lawmakers show irritation over withheld Interior documents | Republican offers bipartisan carbon tax bill | Scientists booted from EPA panel form new group MORE (D-Hawaii) pressed Jorjani on a legal opinion that repealed protections for certain migratory birds, asking him what industry stood to benefit the most from his opinion.

“I’m not aware of any particular industry that benefits from this, I’d like to think the American people benefit,” Jorjani said, before being cut off by Hirono.

“Yes, I’d like to think so too, but you cannot escape the conclusion that the people you used to work for before — the Koch brothers — said this is one of their biggest issues they wanted to have done away with,” Hirono said. “So I’d say the oil and gas industries are the biggest beneficiaries.”

Another chief concern of Democratic senators involved Jorjani’s dual role as head of the office that oversees public records requests.

Wyden said Jorjani was using that role to hinder investigations, holding back necessary documents.

“By my count there are four investigations that were closed or found inconclusive based on a lack of cooperation,” Wyden said, resurfacing a 2017 email from Jorjani that said it was his job to “protect the Secretary.”

“Last time I looked, Interior lawyers are responsible for protecting the best interests of the American people before those of the secretary or special interests,” Wyden said. “I found that comment especially troubling.”

Jorjani said that comment was directed at a political appointee for his poor use of taxpayer money, something Jorjani said would damage the image of the department.