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

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
© Greg Nash

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CONTACT SPORTS: 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. 

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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 TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE 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 outside critics have raised against Steve Wackowski, Interior’s senior adviser 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 the 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 ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump extends Florida offshore drilling pause, expands it to Georgia, South Carolina Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention Trump flails as audience dwindles and ratings plummet MORE 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.

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

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. 

Read more about the report here

LOGGING HOURS: U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueTrump administration finalizes plan to open up protected areas of Tongass National Forest to logging  Perdue has found the right path in National Forests Democrats seek clarity on payroll tax deferral for federal workers MORE on Friday ordered the Forest Service to expedite environmental reviews, paving the way for more grazing, logging and oil development on public lands.

The directive, announced by Perdue on a trip to Missoula, Mont., comes in the form of an unusual memo to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen. He called it “a blueprint for reforms to further provide relief from burdensome regulations, improve customer service, and boost the productivity of our National Forests and Grasslands.”

The move could be welcome news in Montana, where the state’s ranchers, miners and oil and gas workers have long argued for increased access to public lands.

But environmentalists say the memo affirms a number of dangerous strategies already underway by the Trump administration.

“This is a roadmap to national forest destruction, and it’s painful to read,” said Randi Spivak, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program. 

“In the midst of the climate and extinction crises, Perdue offers a dystopian vision of expanding mining, fracking, logging and grazing in national forests. This will increase air and water pollution, kill wildlife and increase carbon pollution. It’s the extractive industry’s agenda on steroids.”

The memo, however, lacks the formal letterhead or signature typical with such documents, and mainly sets broad goals for the Forest Service rather than laying out any specific policy directives. 

Perdue’s trip to Montana coincides with a Senate effort to pass a major conservation bill, led in part by Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesOn The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power Credit union group to spend million on Senate, House races MORE (R-Mont.)

Daines, who is battling former Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockCourt removes Pendley from role as public lands chief On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami McConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight MORE (D) in his reelection bid, is considered one of the Senate’s more vulnerable Republicans and has relied heavily on land issues in his campaign. 

“Thanks to @SecretarySonny for coming to Montana today to highlight new efforts to increase productivity and access of our forests, streamline environmental review, and improve grazing permitting. The @USDA and @forestservice are in great hands under your leadership,” he wrote on Twitter.

The recommendations align with other efforts already taken by the Trump administration and in some cases regulations already underway at the Forest Service.

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Read more on the memo here

DIDN’T YOUR MOMMA TELL YOU NOTHING GOOD HAPPENS AFTER 1 AM? The Senate voted 65-19 early Friday morning to advance a bipartisan conservation bill after lawmakers couldn’t reach a deal to skip the procedural vote. 

The vote, conducted after 1 a.m., was required to advance the Great American Outdoors Act, which would provide $900 million annually in oil and gas revenues for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

The LWCF funds conservation projects like acquiring land for national parks, and the legislation would separately put $6.5 billion towards addressing a maintenance backlog in the National Park system. 

The Senate will take additional votes on Monday on the bill. Absent an 11th-hour snag, it is expected to pass early next week. 

Sleepy-eyed senators returned to the Capitol in the middle of the night after some members refused to give unanimous approval to move up the vote. 

A private stalemate over the bill spilled into public view on Thursday afternoon when GOP senators warned that they expected to have to return to the Capitol for the rare 1 a.m. vote Friday. 

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Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Republican lawyers brush off Trump's election comments MORE (R-Ky.) moved to end debate on the lands bill Wednesday, meaning under Senate rules that was the earliest he could have the first vote, absent an agreement. 

Senators routinely agree to move up votes, or delay them until Monday, so that they can leave Washington mid-Thursday. But GOP senators said there was no sign that a deal would be worked out amid a stalemate over allowing amendment votes, none of which are expected to be held. 

"We would have to have consent, and we don't have that," Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntSCOTUS confirmation in the last month of a close election? Ugly Senate to push funding bill vote up against shutdown deadline Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day MORE (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said about trying to get an earlier vote. "I think that's primarily over the amendment process."  

Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsDemocrats call for declassifying election threats after briefing by Trump officials The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November Senate GOP sees early Supreme Court vote as political booster shot MORE (R-S.D.) added that some senators want votes on amendments to the bill and "this is their way of sending a message." 

The Senate bill is currently on track to be wrapped up without any amendment votes, something that has frustrated senators who want changes. 

"This legislation was written as if on stone tablets, there is no more to be written, this book is sealed, you can't have anymore to say ... That's how one would treat a subordinate. And I think it's insulting not to me but to those I represent,” Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeBipartisan representatives demand answers on expired surveillance programs McConnell shores up GOP support for coronavirus package McConnell tries to unify GOP MORE (R-Utah) said. 

Lee added that the bill is "perpetuating and worsening our already highly problematic federal public lands policy." 

Lee on Thursday tried to get votes on five amendments — two from himself, one from Sen. Mike BraunMichael BraunTrump plans to pick Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg on court Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error Pessimism grows as hopes fade for coronavirus deal MORE (R-Ind.), one from Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCrenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat SCOTUS confirmation in the last month of a close election? Ugly The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' MORE (R-Texas) and one from Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) — but Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBreaking the Chinese space addiction Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error Billionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden MORE (R-Colo.) objected.

Read more about what happened in the Capitol after dark here.

ON TAP NEXT WEEK:

On Tuesday:

-The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing to examine the impacts of COVID-19 on the energy industry

-The House Energy and Commerce Committee will also look into COVID-19’s impact on the energy sector 

On Wednesday:

-The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing on challenges in recycling 

On Thursday:

-The House Natural Resources Committee will consider a number of bills 

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

Can India chart a low-carbon future? The world might depend on it, writes The Washington Post

Supertrawlers ‘making a mockery’ of UK’s protected seas, The Guardian reports

U.S. regulator to report on climate risks to markets in July, Reuters reports

ICYMI: From Thursday…

More than 1,000 tons of plastic is deposited in Western protected areas annually, study finds