Interior gains new watchdog

Interior gains new watchdog
© Greg Nash

Mark Lee Greenblatt, the newly minted inspector general at the Interior Department, is stepping into a big job.

Interior has been swirling in controversy since the earliest days of the Trump administration. 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 resigned late last year after being dogged by ethics complaints ranging from business ties with the companies he regulated to violating the Hatch Act by wearing “Make America Great Again” socks.

But watchdog groups say ethical issues at the department have only grown more concerning with current Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, at the helm, and Greenblatt is taking over the Office of Inspector General (OIG) as it’s under increasing pressure to examine the actions of the department’s top leaders.

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Greenblatt, 45, is the first Senate-confirmed leader for Interior’s OIG since 2009. Three weeks into his new role, he told The Hill he had long been interested in serving at Interior.

“Look at the panoply of issues that we’re facing as an office ... ranging from environmental issues, to oil and gas, to Native American tribes, all the way through to senior-level misconduct allegations and sexual harassment,” Greenblatt said last week. “You don’t see that frequently in the IG community.”

It was that wide portfolio and the reputation of the team involved that attracted the Maryland native to the job, though conservation groups have been clear about where they think he should focus his attention.

The office has acknowledged an investigation into high-level Interior officials for potential ethics violations, and numerous lawmakers and environmental groups have pushed OIG to review Interior’s new public records process, which allows political appointees to review Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

“Mark Greenblatt has a very challenging job ahead of him. The role of inspector generals has shifted under the Trump administration because so much of the impropriety and corruption is coming from the very top levels of the administration,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director at Western Priorities, a public lands advocacy group.

The proximity to high-level officials who are likely a target of investigation began before Greenblatt even started the job.

During his confirmation hearing, Greenblatt was seated next to Daniel Jorjani, the de facto top lawyer at the department who has been nominated to serve as its solicitor. Jorjani is also a frequent target of lawmakers for his involvement in changing the department’s FOIA process.

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That left Greenblatt testifying next to a man he will likely investigate.

“The fact that he was sitting there, frankly, was I think more awkward for my wife, who was sitting next to his wife,” Greenblatt said. “And, you know, she lamented that that was highly uncomfortable.”

Greenblatt, however, has said before that inspectors general are used to being “the skunk at the picnic.” A graduate of Duke and Columbia Law School who has written a book about war stories from service members in Iraq and Afghanistan, he got his start at the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations before moving to investigative roles at the Department of Justice (DOJ) and later serving as assistant inspector general for investigations at the Department of Commerce.

Greenbelt also has a black belt in taekwondo and played drums in a cover band, but he says he’s had to scale back both of those activities since the births of his two sons.

In his interview last week, he repeatedly stressed the need to be “fair, independent, and objective,” but he said he’s learned from watching other inspectors general struggle through poor relationships with agency heads.

“That can make the IG more ineffective,” Greenblatt said. “So I think you need to establish a good working professional relationship when possible.”

Congress might make that challenging. Democratic lawmakers have not been shy about telling Interior’s inspector general how he should spend his time.

A July call from 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.) to investigate whether Jorjani lied to Congress about his role in reviewing FOIA requests, as well as a similar ask earlier this month from the House Natural Resources Committee into Interior’s FOIA process itself, are just the latest examples.

“We report directly to the agency and to Congress. We’re a unique animal,” Greenblatt said. “To the extent to which they are conveying their priorities to us through those requests, I’m happy to receive them and consider them.”

Greenblatt had the support of both parties when he was confirmed by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with Wyden telling him he has his work cut out for him.

“I’ll have DOJ on speed dial if I need to,” Greenblatt told lawmakers..

“I’m certainly hopeful that he will be aggressive,” Weiss said. “That is what he promised during his confirmation hearing, and I have no reason to doubt him. He was confirmed with bipartisan support because he has a track record of that.”