Interior centralizes ethics reviews after recent high-profile probes

 Interior centralizes ethics reviews after recent high-profile probes
© Greg Nash

The Department of the Interior will be centralizing ethics reviews across its many agencies at its headquarters, following years of ethics investigations centered on many of the department’s top staff.

In an order signed by Secretary David Bernhardt Wednesday and shared with The Hill, ethics officials at the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and others will report to ethics officials based at Interior’s headquarters rather than agency directors.

But ethics officials who reviewed the plan criticized its broad focus on all agency employees rather than the high-level officials currently being investigated for ethical lapses.

Scott de le Vega, director of Interior’s Departmental Ethics Office, said the change was designed to ensure Interior’s roughly 70,000 employees are getting consistent ethics advice regardless of which branch of the department they serve.

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They also want to ensure ethics officers are held accountable for the advice they give.

“The Department of the Interior has received criticism from the Government Accountability Office, from the Office of Government Ethics, not to mention from the Hill itself and Republican and Democratic administrations about lapses in ethical behavior from the highest levels to the lowest levels at the department,” de la Vega told The Hill.

“The way we are reorganizing and restructuring things will build a stronger program so that we ensure that our employees have the best tools and resources for them to mitigate and reduce the chances of those ethical lapses occurring again.”

Ethics experts apprised of the plan by The Hill criticized its focus on thousands of employees rather than the top staff whose actions have resulted in at least half a dozen investigations by the agency’s Office of Inspector General, as well as countless other requests for investigations.

Much of the attention to ethics issues within the department during the Trump administration has focused squarely on those at the top, particularly at Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist who has been followed by protesters donning “swamp creature” masks during many of his congressional appearances.

“Ethical leadership should come from the top of the top. An ethical workplace depends on leadership that sends the tone,” said Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel at the Campaign Legal Center (CLC). “So the idea that the fix is to centralize who other ethic officials report to ... they might be missing the boat a little bit. They should definitely be focused on ensuring their senior level officials are complying with ethics laws first.”

The CLC was one of several groups to file an ethics complaint against Bernhardt following reporting from The New York Times that he was influential in easing rules that would benefit a former client. 

“The ethical problems at Interior have nothing to do with 70,000 rank-and-file employees and has everything to do with David Bernhardt and his inner circle,” said Aaron Weiss, at the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group that has repeatedly criticized ethics issues at Interior. “There’s 70,000 employees getting good ethics advice, and we know David Bernhardt has been getting poor ethics advice and in some cases doing everything he can to skirt his ethics obligations.”

The centralized ethics office will be housed within Interior’s solicitor’s office. That’s not unusual, ethics experts say, but the man nominated to fill that post and who already fills the role in a de facto capacity, Daniel Jorjani, has been mired in ethical issues of his own.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenWyden blasts FEC Republicans for blocking probe into NRA over possible Russia donations Wyden calls for end to political ad targeting on Facebook, Google Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity MORE (D-Ore.) has vowed to try and block his confirmation given concerns about whether he was truthful to Congress during his confirmation hearing about his potential involvement in a controversial ethics policy at the Interior Department that has been criticized for giving political appointees more power over public records. 

De la Vega said the order from Bernhardt comes as he is trying to increase ethics staff throughout Interior, raising the number from the 21 employees he oversaw when arriving in April of last year to 90.

Bernhardt’s order directs the agency to complete its ethics reorganization by the end of the year.

De la Vega, a career official, served in a number of capacities at the White House under the Obama administration, including as the ethics official for former Vice President Biden.

He said the secretary’s office won’t be let off the hook under the reorganization.

“Making sure that the secretary’s office — and all of the politicals at [Interior] within the secretary’s office — making sure they get proper ethics advice and proper ethics attention to the questions and concerns that they raised in the course of their policymaking, that is also a top priority for my office,” de la Vega said.

Ethics experts said centralizing ethics functions isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it could sideline ethics officials within departments that are the most familiar with how they function and what conflicts of interest must be avoided.

“The mandate of Interior is so broad and there are so many bureaus,” Marsco said. “I don’t understand how centralizing who the reporting person is gets at the ultimate goal of making sure everyone is receiving consistent advice. If that’s the goal, there are other ways to do that like more training.”

The ethics reorganization comes on the heels of another one announced just last week. Interior will now be organized into 12 regions based on various watersheds to consolidate communication between 49 offices spread across eight different bureaus within Interior. Each region will be headed by a field assistant who will coordinate activities across the bureaus.

Both moves have been described as a way of centralizing power within the secretary’s office.

“It’s certainly centralizing the power of the designated agency ethics official,” Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said of the role filled by de la Vega. “In normal times I could see why they’d do this, but these are not normal times.”

Updated at 2:03 p.m.