New policy at Interior's in-house watchdog clamps down on interactions with press

New policy at Interior's in-house watchdog clamps down on interactions with press
© Getty

A new policy rolled out by the Interior Department’s inspector general puts strict limits on the office’s interactions with reporters.

The press office for the agency’s internal watchdog, which is investigating a number of Interior officials, including Secretary David Bernhardt, is now prohibited from providing journalists with information on its work beyond, “Our report speaks for itself,” or “We have no comment.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The policy, which took effect Aug. 5, is a change from the previous practice of sometimes providing reporters with background or additional information.

When asked this week about a new report released by the IG office, the press office told The Hill it could use one of two statements: “Our report speaks for itself” or “We have no comment.”

The policy change comes under the leadership of acting Inspector General Gail Ennis.

Mark Lee Greenblatt, Trump's nominee to replace Ennis as head of Interior’s IG office, has been confirmed by the Senate but has not yet assumed the role. Greenblatt, a former assistant inspector general for investigations at the Commerce Department, is anticipated to begin his new job in the coming weeks.

Stephen Hardgrove, chief of staff for the inspector general’s office, said in an email to The Hill that the policy change “was put in place for the period of time that we had an Acting Inspector General and while awaiting the arrival of our appointed Inspector General, Mark Greenblatt.”

“Of course each Office of Inspector General determines what, if any, information they choose to elaborate on for closed investigation,” he added.

In late May, President TrumpDonald John TrumpPelosi arrives in Jordan with bipartisan congressional delegation Trump says his Doral resort will no longer host G-7 after backlash CNN's Anderson Cooper mocks WH press secretary over Fox News interview MORE appointed Ennis, the Social Security Administration (SSA) inspector general, to also oversee the Interior Department watchdog office.

Ennis was sworn in for the SSA role at the beginning of the year, her first time serving as an inspector general (IG). The Senate confirmed her by unanimous consent.

Interior’s IG office is handling a number of investigations, including an ethics probe into six Interior officials, including Bernhardt.

The IG office told House lawmakers that it is also looking into 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's alleged use of private email to conduct public business. That investigation is being included in a criminal probe overseen by a joint Justice Department and Interior IG team, Ennis told House lawmakers in a letter released publicly at the end of July.

The letter was the first public acknowledgement that Zinke is being criminally investigated for matters involving his stake in a Montana land deal with the chairman of oil services company Haliburton, as well as Interior’s initial decision to obstruct construction of a tribal casino project in Connecticut following heavy lobbying from rival casino MGM.

Ennis previously worked as a partner at the Washington-based law firm WilmerHale, which lobbies for a number of clients with business before Interior. One of the companies represented by the firm is Twin Metals, a Minnesota-based mineral mining company that is lobbying to build a hotly debated copper-nickel mine near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In May, the Trump administration moved to renew one of the mine's mineral leases, reversing a decision from the Obama administration.

Unlike most IG officials, who are usually career government employees, Ennis is a political appointee who previously contributed to Trump’s campaign.

She donated $4,275 in total to Trump’s Make America Great Again Committee and his presidential campaign, according to Federal Election Commission data.