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McCollum, Udall Request Inspector General Investigation into Potential Violations of Federal Ethics Regulations at Interior by Acting Secretary Bernhardt and Other Senior Officials

March 18, 2019
Press Release
Reporting suggests Bernhardt and six senior DOI officials may have been involved in actions that appear to benefit former clients, which would violate ethics policies and procedures meant to prevent conflicts of interest

U.S. Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, and U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Ranking Member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, wrote to U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) Deputy Inspector General Mary L. Kendall to request an investigation into whether senior DOI officials, including Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, violated federal ethics regulations meant to prevent conflicts of interest by participating in matters concerning former clients or employers. President Trump nominated Bernhardt to serve as Secretary of the Interior in February.

“We write to request that your office investigate reports of ethics irregularities by senior officials at the Department of the Interior (Department) and review whether ethics policies and procedures that cover senior officials at the Department are sufficient to ensure compliance with the letter and spirit of Federal ethics requirements, particularly those that prevent conflicts of interest,” the lawmakers wrote.

In their letter, Udall and McCollum called on the Deputy Inspector General to investigate allegations that Acting Secretary David Bernhardt was involved in actions that directly benefitted one of his former clients and relied on verbal rather than written authorization to participate in such matters, along with reports that six senior DOI officials met or dealt with former clients or employers within the first two years of their service – a potential violation of the Trump administration’s code of ethics.  

According to a recent article in the New York Times referenced in the letter, “[b]ecause Mr. Bernhardt’s actions would disproportionately benefit one of his former clients, independent ethics specialists said that, under the terms of the Trump administration’s ethics pledge, which Mr. Bernhardt signed, he should not have been given clearance to act.’’

“We note that, according to the [New York Times] article, Acting Secretary Bernhardt relied on verbal rather than written authorization from ethics officials to participate in matters that affected his former client. Reliance on a verbal authorization, with no supporting documentation, is not likely to ensure that adequate steps have been taken to eliminate any conflicts of interest with work done for former clients or employers, particularly when it involves a controversial issue that was the subject of prior litigation and lobbying by the Acting Secretary,” the lawmakers continued.

The full text of the letter is available here.