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Interior’s watchdog opens an ethics probe into Bernhardt four days after his Senate confirmation

The Office of Inspector General said its investigation is based on numerous requests from lawmakers and conservation groups.

David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, speaks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at his confirmation hearing. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Interior Department’s internal watchdog opened an investigation into ethics complaints against former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt on Monday, four days after the Senate confirmed him as the agency’s secretary.

A spokeswoman for Interior’s inspector general’s office, Nancy DiPaolo, said the probe is “based on requests from multiple lawmakers and others.” At least eight senators who chastised Bernhardt during his confirmation hearing, including Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), called for an investigation. Numerous conservation groups also submitted demands for inquiry into potential conflicts of interest.

In a letter to the executive director of one of the groups, the Campaign for Accountability, Inspector General Mary L. Kendall wrote that her office “received seven complaints, including yours, from a wide assortment of complainants alleging various conflict of interest and other violations by then deputy secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt."

“We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them,” Kendall added. “We will conduct our review as expeditiously and thoroughly as practicable."

Throughout his confirmation process, Bernhardt and his allies in the Senate maintained that he has complied with the agency’s ethics guidelines and has hired additional ethics officers to strengthen them.

“It is important to note that the department 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 with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws,” Faith Vander Voort, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement sent by email.

Vander Voort included a list of actions Bernhardt took as acting secretary before his Senate confirmation, such as elevating the ethics office as a division that reports to the solicitor, hiring more full-time ethics professionals and giving them the power to raise concerns “more quickly and more directly.”

But as a deputy to former secretary Ryan Zinke, who departed office in December under a cloud of internal investigations, Bernhardt played a pivotal role in policy changes that stood to benefit his former clients.

Months after he was confirmed as a deputy in 2017, Bernhardt guided decisions to roll back endangered species protections enforced by the Fish and Wildlife Service, open massive acreage of public lands to more gas drilling, and weaken safety rules for ocean oil production platforms.

A year later, Interior reinterpreted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in a way that took that teeth out of enforcement. The department issued guidance to wildlife police who enforce the law that an individual or group cannot be held liable for killing birds under many circumstances.

As an example, it said, “all that is relevant is that the landowner undertook an action that did not have killing of barn owls as its purpose.” But farmers reckoning with barn owls pales in comparison to operations with oil pits that kill multitudes of birds. In addition, Interior decided to no longer bill offshore oil and gas operations for leaks that kill birds under the act.

Lawmakers in the House also expressed concern about Bernhardt’s transparency in documenting his daily meetings with staffers and people outside the department.

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.

Yet his staff adopted a practice of preparing “a daily card” with Bernhardt’s detailed schedule on a Google document in a way that withheld information from the public. A detailed accounting of his meetings as acting secretary was prepared the evening prior to the following workday. But that document was erased each day when it was overwritten to reflect his appointments for the following day.

The practice is a significant departure from that of his predecessors, who kept more-detailed calendars that identified those with whom they were meeting and when, and made the information available to the public on the agency’s website.

Reps. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) demanded more transparency from Bernhardt.