Interior IG opens investigation into secretary days after confirmation
The Interior Department’s Inspector General has opened an investigation into Secretary David Bernhardt’s potential conflicts of interest, just four days after the Senate confirmed him to the job.
The Interior Inspector General’s office received seven complaints from a “wide assortment of complainants alleging various potential conflict of interest and other violations by then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt,” according to a letter the watchdog sent to Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, one of the lawmakers who suggested an investigation.
Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist, was confirmed in the Senate 56-41 last week following intense scrutiny from Democratic members of Congress and advocacy groups about how he has been spending his time at the agency since joining in 2017.
The New York Times was the first to report the investigation.
“We now have an Interior secretary who has been on the job for one full business day and is already under investigation,” Wyden said in a statement. “With Bernhardt’s track record and the number of allegations against him, it’s no surprise. At least now, the American people will finally get the answers they deserve.”
Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said that Bernhardt is in “complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” in an email to CNN.
Vander Voort said the Interior Department’s Ethics Office has “already conducted a review of many of these accusations at Mr. Bernhardt’s request.”
“Secretary Bernhardt is hopeful the Inspector General will expeditiously complete a review of the facts associated with the questions raised by Democratic members of Congress and DC political organizations,” she said.
After members of Congress requested more information about Bernhardt’s calendars while working at the department, Bernhardt said he did not keep calendars. He said the records that had been released about his schedule were complete and accurate. A week before his confirmation, the department released hundreds of pages that included more information about his schedule than had previously been known.
One of the complaints under investigation by the inspector general came from the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan ethics group, which accused Bernhardt of violating his ethical obligations by working on matters at Interior he previously lobbied on for his former client Westlands Water District, a California water district.
CNN investigations found that Bernhardt made at least 15 policy decisions that were favorable towards his former clients since joining the department as deputy secretary in 2017. A CNN report also found that the Interior Department had approved 267 onshore drilling permits during the 35-day government shutdown.
The Interior Inspector General’s office still has two ongoing investigations into Bernhardt’s predecessor, Ryan Zinke. One involves the department’s handling of a Connecticut casino, and the other involves the re-drawing of boundaries for the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Zinke resigned at the end of 2018 amid a host of ethics controversies.
CNN’s Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.