In­te­rior Dept. opens in­quiry into con­duct of new chief

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Co­ral Daven­port

WASHINGTON – The In­te­rior De­part­ment’s in­ter­nal watch­dog has opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into ethics com­plaints against the agency’s newly in­stalled sec­re­tary, David Bern­hardt.

Bern­hardt, a for­mer lob­by­ist for the oil and agribusi­ness in­dus­tries, was con­firmed by the Se­nate last week to head the agency, which over­sees the na­tion’s 500 mil­lion acres of pub­lic land and vast coastal wa­ters. He has played a cen­tral role in writ­ing poli­cies de­signed to ad­vance Pres­i­dent Trump’s pol­icy of “en­ergy dom­i­nance” and ex­pand­ing fos­sil fuel ex­plo­ration. He has been dogged by al­le­ga­tions of ethics vi­o­la­tions since join­ing the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion as the In­te­rior De­part­ment’s deputy sec­re­tary in 2017.

Eight sen­a­tors, all Democrats, and four gov­ern­ment ethics watch­dog groups have re­quested that the In­te­rior De­part­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral open for­mal in­ves­ti­ga­tions into var­i­ous as­pects of Bern­hardt’s con­duct. Among the chief com­plaints have been al­le­ga­tions, re­vealed by three sep­a­rate New York Times in­ves­ti­ga­tions, that Bern­hardt used his po­si­tion to ad­vance a pol­icy pushed by his for­mer lob­by­ing client; that he con­tin­ued work­ing as a lob­by­ist af­ter fil­ing le­gal pa­per­work declar­ing that he had ceased lob­by­ing; and that he in­ter­vened to block the re­lease of a sci­en­tific re­port show­ing the harm­ful ef­fects of a chem­i­cal pes­ti­cide on cer­tain en­dan­gered species.

In a let­ter sent Mon­day to the sen­a­tors who filed the ethics com­plaints, In­te­rior De­part­ment Deputy In­spec­tor Gen­eral Mary Ken­dall wrote that she had re­ceived seven com­plaints from “a wide as­sort­ment of com­plainants al­leg­ing var­i­ous con­flicts of in­ter­est and other vi­o­la­tions” by Bern­hardt, adding that she had “opened an in­ves­ti­ga­tion to ad­dress them.”

Bern­hardt has main­tained that he did not com­mit any eth­i­cal vi­o­la­tions and, in fact, has worked to strengthen the cul­ture of eth­i­cal com­pli­ance at the In­te­rior De­part­ment, in part by hir­ing dozens of new ethics spe­cial­ists.

Bern­hardt’s spokes­woman, Faith Van­der Voort, wrote in a state­ment, “Sec­re­tary Bern­hardt is in com­plete com­pli­ance with his ethics agree­ment and all ap­pli­ca­ble laws, rules, and reg­u­la­tions.” She added, “It is im­por­tant to note that the De­part­ment Ethics Of­fice has al­ready con­ducted a re­view of many of these ac­cu­sa­tions at Mr. Bern­hardt’s re­quest and de­ter­mined that Sec­re­tary Bern­hardt is in com­plete com­pli­ance.”

Sen. Ron Wy­den, D-Ore., who has for­mally re­quested in­ves­ti­ga­tions into Bern­hardt’s con­duct, and who had pushed for the de­lay of his Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion, wrote in a state­ment: “This is ex­actly why I wanted a de­lay in Bern­hardt’s con­sid­er­a­tion. We now have an In­te­rior Sec­re­tary who has been on the job for one full busi­ness day and is al­ready un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

The in­quiry into Bern­hardt’s ac­tiv­i­ties is the lat­est in a se­ries of ethics con­cerns around Trump’s top en­ergy and en­vi­ron­ment of­fi­cials since the be­gin­ning of his ad­min­is­tra­tion. Trump’s first in­te­rior sec­re­tary, Ryan Zinke, and his first En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency ad­min­is­tra­tor, Scott Pruitt, both re­signed in 2018 amid al­le­ga­tions of ethics mis­con­duct.

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