The Interior Department’s internal watchdog said on Monday it had launched an investigation into several allegations of ethics violations by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, less than a week after the Senate confirmed him to the position.
Bernhardt had been serving as acting Secretary since early January, when then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke departed amid his own swirl of ethics scandals. Senate Democrats have complained that Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for fossil fuel and agriculture businesses, was not fit to head the agency because of what they deemed as too many conflicts of interest, which they said should require him to recuse himself from much of the agency’s work. Congressional Democrats have also accused him of being opaque about whether he has met with former clients while in office.
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Senate Democrats sent seven different letters to Interior’s Inspector General to look into their allegations of conflicts of interest, including Bernhardt’s role in blocking a department report analyzing how a controversial pesticide affected federally protected wildlife, and whether he improperly pushed to remove a species of small fish from the endangered species list to benefit a former client.
“We got all their complaints and have opened an investigation,” said Nancy DiPaolo, a spokesperson for Interior’s Office of Inspector General.
An Interior spokesperson defended Bernhardt’s actions, saying they had been vetted internally.
Interior’s ethics office has already reviewed the accusations “and determined that Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” Interior spokesperson Faith Vander Voort said. “Secretary Bernhardt is hopeful the Inspector General will expeditiously complete a review of the facts associated with the questions raised by Democratic Members of Congress and DC political organizations.”
A White House spokesperson declined to comment.
Still, several Democrats noted that Bernhardt has now come under scrutiny almost immediately after taking office.
“This is exactly why I wanted a delay in Bernhardt’s consideration,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who had requested the Senate postpone voting on Bernhardt’s confirmation. “We now have an Interior Secretary who has been on the job for one full business day and is already under investigation.”
House Democrats have also complained that Bernhardt may have been destroying his official calendars in violation of recordkeeping laws, prompting the National Archives and Records Administration to seek information from the agency earlier this month.
Environmental groups and most Democrats had opposed Bernhardt’s nomination to lead Interior, saying he remained too close to the fossil fuel and agriculture interests he represented at his former firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP. Bernhardt, as acting secretary, authorized Interior to continue processing oil drilling permits during the government shutdown earlier this year. He has also made it a priority to roll back parts of the Endangered Species Act that made it more difficult for oil companies to drill on some federal land.
House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) on Monday invited Bernhardt to testify before the committee next month to discuss the department’s policy priorities and allegations against Bernhardt’s ethical conduct, including questions on whether he is properly maintaining records of who he has been meeting with.
“While a private meeting with the Secretary would have been welcome in January or February or March, it’s time for him to appear before all Members of this Committee,” Grijalva said in a statement.