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Sessions failed to disclose oil interests as required, ethics experts say

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been implementing big changes at the Justice Department. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions did not disclose his ownership of oil interests on land in Alabama as required by federal ethics rules, according to an examination of state records and independent ethics lawyers who reviewed the documents.

The Alabama records show that Sessions owns subsurface rights to oil and other minerals on more than 600 acres in his home state, some of which are adjacent to a federal wildlife preserve.

The holdings are small, producing revenue in the range of $4,700 annually. But the interests were not disclosed on forms sent by Sessions to the Office of Government Ethics, which reviews the assets of Cabinet nominees for potential conflicts of interest.

Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to rush through President-elect Donald Trump’s Cabinet picks before ethics checks can be completed, and they are seizing on the apparent lapse by Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, to bolster their argument. His confirmation hearing is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

“I am troubled by any omissions,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “But this is particularly troubling because this ownership interest involves oil and gas holdings connected to a federal wildlife refuge.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said, “If Senator Sessions failed to disclose all of his financial information this is a serious matter.”

A lawyer assisting Sessions with the confirmation process, Charles Cooper, said Monday that "we are investigating these questions and looking carefully into the reporting forms submitted to be sure that they have accurately characterized the senator's holdings. To whatever extent that's not the case, the forms will be amended."

He noted that the amount of money Sessions receives from oil holdings is small and that the senator’s team had discussed the revenue in private conversations with Justice Department ethics officials, who raised no objections. He also said Sessions accurately listed the amount of overall revenue he received and has described the revenue as rent or royalties.

Ethics experts said the rules require more complete and specific public disclosure.

“Office of Government Ethics guidance clearly states with regard to mineral rights leases that filers must disclose their real estate holding as well as the identity of the lessee and the specific type of resources being extracted,” said Bryson Morgan, a former investigative counsel to the Office of Congressional Ethics now working at the Caplin & Drysdale law firm.

Sessions did make reference to $4,474 in oil royalty revenue in a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire last month, but he did not describe the nature of his holdings, including rights to oil located under the federal wildlife refuge.

Trevor Potter, an ethics lawyer who has advised several GOP presidential candidates, said Sessions’s ethics agreement may now need to be adjusted.

The Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains how confirmation hearings in the Senate work. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

"The fact that his oil is in a federal wildlife refuge means he should not be involved in DOJ policies concerning drilling or environmental issues" involving federal reserves, Potter said. "Clearly he should have disclosed the asset."

As attorney general, Sessions would have a role in determining policy for the department’s environment and natural resources division, which has more than 400 lawyers responsible for enforcing pollution and other laws.

As a member of the Judiciary Committee, Sessions has been critical of past nominees who submitted what he said was incomplete information. In 2010, he spearheaded a letter to the committee's then-chairman, Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), arguing that an appeals court nominee, Goodwin Liu, was not providing senators with enough information about past articles he had written.

“At best, this nominee’s extraordinary disregard for the Committee’s constitutional role demonstrates incompetence; at worst, it creates the impression that he knowingly attempted to hide his most controversial work from the Committee,” the letter read.

Alabama records show that the senator leased “undivided mineral interests” to Chief Capital, a Texas firm, in 2015. The interests described in state records are located in Choctaw County and appear from state topographical maps to be located in the Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge.