Interior Department Launches Investigation of Potential Ethics Violations Among Staff

Interior Department Launches Investigation of Potential Ethics Violations Among Staff

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WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior’s inspector general has launched a new investigation into one or more political appointees at the agency, a move it described as a “related investigation” to a federal probe into the ethics practices of the agency’s secretary, David Bernhardt.

Mary L. Kendall, the Interior Department’s deputy inspector general, confirmed the investigation in an April 18 letter sent to the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group that had issued a complaint against several agency officials. The inquiry will examine “potential ethics violations committed by multiple Department of Interior senior executives,” Ms. Kendall wrote.

The Campaign Legal Center complaint alleges that senior members of the Interior Department “repeatedly violated revolving door ethics prohibitions” by offering agency access to former employers or lobbying clients.

Faith Vander Voort, an Interior Department spokeswoman, said in a statement that the secretary’s office is reviewing the complaint.

“The Department takes ethics issues seriously. The office of the secretary immediately consulted with the department Ethics Office after receiving the subject complaints,” she said.

The probe is the second in two weeks targeting the Interior Department. The first, into Mr. Bernhardt’s conduct, came just four days after he was confirmed by the Senate to lead the agency, which is responsible for managing public lands and natural resources. A former lobbyist for the oil and agribusiness industries, Mr. Bernhardt has been instrumental, first as deputy secretary and now as the agency’s leader, in promoting President Trump’s policy of fossil fuel development.

His conduct came under scrutiny after three New York Times investigations showed that Mr. 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.

The Campaign Legal Center in its complaint names Benjamin Cassidy, senior deputy director for intergovernmental and external affairs; Lori Mashburn, the agency’s White House liaison; Doug Domenech, assistant secretary for insular and international affairs; and Timothy Williams, deputy director of the office of intergovernmental and external affairs.

A spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office on Tuesday acknowledged the probe and declined to describe its scope or how many of the individuals cited in the complaint are under investigation.

Ms. Vander Voort also declined a request for individual comments from the staff members named in the Campaign Legal Center’s complaint, saying, “As a general rule, we do not comment on specific personnel matters.”

Corey Goldstone, a spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, said, “We hope this investigation will answer whether these officials are working on behalf of the American people, or on behalf of the interests that used to pay their salary.”

In each of the cases the 82-page complaint alleges the staff member had improper contact with former clients or employers. It included correspondence, for example, showing Mr. Cassidy, a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, working on a recreational shooting plan in Utah and other issues on which he lobbied at the N.R.A.

In another case, it included calendar items showing Mr. Domenech, who previously directed the Fueling Freedom Project at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a free-market think tank, had met with his former employer in April 2017 to discuss endangered species litigation that organization was pursuing against the agency. Six months later, in what the think tank described in a news release as a “major win for private property rights,” the Interior Department settled the case.

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