Energy & Environment

Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog

Greg Nash

An unnamed senior political official at the Interior Department twice violated their ethics pledge through contact with a scientist working for their former employer, according to an internal watchdog report. 

The department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), however, did not find evidence that the official used the interactions to benefit themselves, the company or the scientist. It determined that the government employee “acted under the mistaken belief that communications involving scientific data were permissible.”

However, their actions did violate the ethics pledge spearheaded by President Trump in the early days of the administration, which bars political appointees from contacting their former employers for two years, the watchdog found.

The details of the report are similar to charges critics have raised against Steve Wackowski, Interior’s senior advisor for Alaska Affairs, who has helped the Trump administration pursue oil development in the state.

Last year, the group Democracy Forward accused Wackowski – a former employee of Fairweather Science, which supports Alaska’s oil and gas industry – of possibly contacting Fairweather representatives to discuss polar bear dens. Interior is currently studying how oil and gas development impacts the vulnerable species.

The report released Friday is the second issued by OIG in the last two weeks investigating potential ethics violations of top Interior employees.

“This is part of a pattern across the Interior Department under both Zinke and Bernhardt,” said Aaron Weiss with watchdog group Center for Western Priorities, referring to former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and current Secretary David Bernhardt.

“You have all of these political appointees … who feel free to contact their former employers and do favors for them,” Weiss said.

Neither OIG nor Interior would comment on the identity of the senior official targeted in the report.

Political appointees are barred from contacting their former employers for two years and sign ethics pledges agreeing to this. 

The OIG report detailed two instances of contact between the political official and the same scientist at the company where the official formerly worked that were found to have been violations of the ethics pledge. 

In one instance in 2017, after a government wildlife biologist told the official that they did not have current data on an endangered species, the employee allegedly reached out to the company scientist. 

The company scientist provided recent data to the political official, who thanked the person, the report said. 

The employee told the OIG that they did not seek ethics advice on the matter because they were asking for scientific data that the company was required to provide, and were not discussing actions the company wanted from the department. 

In early 2018, the senior Interior official allegedly met with the same scientist, as well as other government officials, at the official’s office. The unnamed employee said that the meeting was to obtain information from experts, including the scientist, according to the report. 

The official told investigators that they did not seek ethics advice because they believed the meeting was allowed since it was about sharing scientific data and not about actions the company wanted from Interior. 

“The report is clear that the senior Interior official in question acted responsibly and with the highest integrity,” an Interior spokesperson told The Hill in an email. 

The person described some of the events described in the report as “miscommunication and misunderstanding” between the official and the ethics office. 

An official with the OIG’s office, which declined to name the person, told The Hill in an email that “our past practice and an analysis of the applicable law tips the balance in favor of protecting the individual’s identity.”

“The evidence established that the individual complied with ethics rules multiple times and, in the instances in which they mistakenly violated the ethics pledge, we found no evidence of personal gain for the individual or former employer,” the spokesperson said. 

This is not the first time the OIG found ethics violations at the Interior Department. Last month, it published a report saying that Assistant Interior Secretary Douglas Domenech wrongly used government resources by reaching out to a former high-level EPA employee about a job for his son-in-law.

– Rebecca Beitsch contributed

Updated: 4:50 p.m.

Tags Donald Trump ethics violations Interior Department Ryan Zinke
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