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 WydenFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal On The Money: Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock | Meadows, Pelosi trade criticism on stalled stimulus talks | Coronavirus recession hits Social Security, Medicare, highway funding Unemployment benefits to expire as coronavirus talks deadlock 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 Defense: Embattled Pentagon policy nominee withdraws, gets appointment to deputy policy job | Marines, sailor killed in California training accident identified | Governors call for extension of funding for Guard's coronavirus response House-passed spending bill would block Pebble Mine construction The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - At loggerheads, Congress, White House to let jobless payout lapse 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 ZinkeTrump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog | Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service | Senate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog 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 KingCongress has a shot at correcting Trump's central mistake on cybersecurity The Susan Collins conundrum Trump ramps up China tensions with consulate shutdown 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 HironoOvernight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw Hillicon Valley: Feds warn hackers targeting critical infrastructure | Twitter exploring subscription service | Bill would give DHS cyber agency subpoena power 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.