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Interior Secretary Bernhardt under investigation by inspector general

Benjamin Hulac, CQ-Roll Call on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, is under investigation by his agency's inspector general over "potential conflicts of interest and other violations," an agency official said Monday.

In a Monday letter to Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, Interior Department Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said her office opened an investigation into Bernhardt following at least seven complaints from Democratic lawmakers and independent watchdogs alleging the conflicts and other violations.

"We have reviewed the information you provided, as well as other information readily available to use," Kendall stated, referring to a letter Wyden sent to her office March 29. "We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them."

After Senate Democrats publicly released the letter, the House Natural Resources Committee announced a May 15 date for Bernhardt to testify on "Interior policies and ethical concerns." Chairman Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona said in a statement that while a private meeting with Bernhardt "would have been welcome in January or February or March," it's "time for him" to come before the committee.

In a statement, Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Bernhardt has not done anything wrong. "Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules and regulations," she said.

The announcement of the IG investigation comes on Bernhardt's first full week as Interior secretary. The Senate confirmed him to the post on April 11 by a vote of 56-41.

At least 11 Democratic senators asked the inspector general to investigate a range of claims against Bernhardt, but it is unclear which the inspector general is investigating and when the investigation started.

Wyden had called for a probe into whether Bernhardt personally intervened to block publication of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report on toxic pesticides to benefit chemical manufacturers. Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono and seven other Democrats sent a similar request.

 

The inspector general also received a request from Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, asking the office to examine whether Bernhardt played a role in the department's handling of endangered species in the San Francisco Bay Delta, moves which could potentially benefit a California water agency, Westlands Water District, which he represented as a lobbyist.

Last month, an Interior ethics official responded to Warren and Blumenthal's letter saying the department's "interpretation and application of the relevant legal authorities is both reasonable and prudent." The official said Bernhardt had "immediately requested" that ethics staff look into the matter and "examine the prior ethics advice and counsel he had received."

"My experience has been that (Bernhardt) is very diligent about his ethics obligations and he has made ethics compliance and the creation of an ethical culture a top priority at the department," said Scott A. de la Vega, director of Interior's departmental ethics office.

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