The Interior Department inspector general’s office opened an investigation Monday into ethics complains lodged against Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist who was confirmed by the Senate just four days ago. Nancy DiPaolo, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said the investigation is “based on requests from multiple lawmakers and others,” including conservation groups.
The department’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, said in a letter to one of the complainants, the Campaign for Accountability, that her office had received seven complaints from a “wide assortment” of parties “alleging various conflict of interest and other violations by then deputy secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt,” adding, “We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them.” Before becoming acting secretary in January, Bernhardt was the top deputy to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who retired while in the shadow of several internal investigations.
Bernhardt’s spokeswoman at the Interior Department, Faith Vander Voort, said in a statement that “Bernhardt is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” and the department’s Ethics Office “has already conducted a review of many of these accusations at Mr. Bernhardt’s request” and determined that he “is in complete compliance.”
When he was deputy secretary, Bernhardt “played a pivotal role in policy changes that stood to benefit his former clients,” including gutting protections for migratory birds and endangered species, and opening huge amounts of public lands to oil and gas drilling, The Washington Post reports. “Bernhardt has so many potential conflicts of interest from his time as a lobbyist that he carries a card to remind himself what parties to avoid to stay in compliance with ethics rules,” the Post adds, but his staff has been recording his daily appointments in a Google document that was erased every day, a “significant departure” from the scheduling transparency of his predecessors. Peter Weber