Energy & Environment

Trump official violated ethics rules in seeking EPA job for relative, watchdog finds

Greg Nash

A top Trump official at the Interior Department used his government connections to help a relative secure a job at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), according to an internal government watchdog.

Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) published a report Friday saying Assistant Interior Secretary Douglas Domenech wrongly used government resources by reaching out to a former high-level EPA employee both in person and by email about a job for his son-in-law.

The report said Domenech “took advantage of his position… to gain access to the EPA senior official.”

It detailed how Domenech first made contact with the EPA official in 2017 at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, where he had received free tickets to sit in the Interior secretary’s box.

Wolf Trap, located outside of Washington, D.C., is affiliated with the National Park Service, and OIG has repeatedly suggested Interior stop accepting free tickets in order to avoid ethical issues.

Sources told The Hill the relative is Domenech’s son-in-law. The OIG report refers to the relative as “family member 1.”

While chatting with the unnamed EPA official, Domenech mentioned that his son-in-law applied for a job with the EPA, and the next day emailed the official to follow up on the application, the OIG said.

According to the report, “When asked if moving the process along was a way to influence the EPA hiring process, Domenech said, ‘Well, when I think of influencing … I guess you’re right. I was trying to influence the process to move along. That’s different than influencing the process to hire [family member 1].’ “

The EPA official responded favorably to Domenech’s email, telling him, “We could use the help frankly so I’m going to get [on] this.”

Domenech’s son-in-law was ultimately offered the job, and accepted, leaving his position working for an unnamed senator.

The report found Domenech’s behavior “implicate[s] a variety of federal ethics regulations,” including misuse of his office and of his government email.

When reached for comment, an Interior Department spokesperson said: “The underlying events regarding Mr. Domenech occurred in 2017 before the Department initiated an unprecedented effort to invest in building a culture of ethical compliance and dramatically expanding the Department of the Interior’s Ethics Office Program, which has resulted in tripling the number of career ethics officials within the Department.”

The OIG report noted that Domenech had already received ethics training at the time of the email exchanges with the EPA official. Those trainings both took place during the George W. Bush and Trump administrations.

“Over those years, he received initial and annual ethics trainings. Moreover, he received two ethics trainings in the first two months of his arrival in 2017, both of which specifically addressed the federal prohibitions against misuse of position, title, and government resources,” the report said.

The EPA did not respond to questions from The Hill seeking information about the hiring or who Domenech was corresponding with and said it could not comment on personnel matters. 

Friday’s report also said Domenech shared a second family member’s wedding-related business website with the EPA official, who was recently engaged.

The OIG report said those actions did not violate ethics rules but “created an impermissible appearance that he used his government email to endorse and promote the business.”

This is the second time in the past six months the OIG has found Domenech in violation of ethics rules. A December report admonished him for meeting with his former employer, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which at the time was suing two Interior agencies.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Friday that Domenech should be fired for the repeated ethics violations.

“Firing Mr. Domenech is the only serious course of action at this point – another round of ethics training is clearly just a waste of time, since it hasn’t sunk in by now,” he said in a statement.

“When it comes to promoting ethics and preventing conflicts of interest, this administration has put up nothing but words, and at this point the damage to the Interior Department’s reputation is mounting by the day. Trump’s leadership team has created a culture of ignoring corruption instead of holding anyone accountable for repeated failures.”

Numerous EPA and Interior officials have been under scrutiny for potential ethical violations during the Trump administration, and the former heads of each agency left their posts in the face of mounting ethics probes.

Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt came under fire for his large security detail and for taking first-class flights, arguing he needed to do so for security reasons.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was the subject of more than a dozen investigations for his conduct in office, including scrutiny over a land deal involving a foundation he led.

Updated at 12:46 p.m.

Tags Douglas Domenech Environmental Protection Agency ethics violations Inspector General Interior Department nepotism Ryan Zinke Scott Pruitt
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