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Ethics Complaint Against Trump Appointee Alleges Federal Agency ‘Unduly Influenced’ Confirmation Process


A non-partisan government watchdog group on Wednesday filed an ethics complaint against Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, urging the Agency Ethics Office to investigate allegations that the former fossil fuel lobbyist had violated conflict of interest laws since joining the Trump administration.

The complaint, submitted by Public Citizen, stems from a report issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s (DOI) Office of Inspector General (OIG), which concluded that the agency intentionally retained records pertaining to then-Deputy Secretary Bernhardt in an effort to prevent public scrutiny of his conduct during the confirmation process.

Prior to joining DOI, Bernhardt headed a lobbying office predominantly servicing fossil fuel corporations such as Halliburton, Cobalt International Energy, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and he vowed to recuse himself from any department business involving his former clients. Public Citizen urged the ethics office to “investigate whether such conflicts of interest may present violations of paragraphs 6 and 7 of President Donald Trump’s ethics Executive Order No. 13770 and perhaps the conflict of interest code itself.”

Under EO 13770, executive branch appointees are required to sign a pledge stating: “I will not for a period of 2 years from the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts.” Bernhardt remained a private attorney and lobbyist until the end of 2016.

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As previously reported by Law&Crime, DOI had been ordered by a federal court to produce the records as part of several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests initiated in 2017 by government accountability groups investigating whether then-Deputy Secretary Bernhardt had complied with ethics requirements.

“The withholding of these documents from congressional and public view may well have unduly influenced the confirmation of Bernhardt as Interior Secretary. In the same vein, if these documents were kept from your office, the withholding of pertinent information related to Bernhardt may also have unduly influenced the decision by the Interior Designated Agency Ethics Official (DAEO) not to carry through with an investigation of potential conflicts of interest,” the complaint stated.

“In light of these recent revelations of withheld information regarding Bernhardt, Public Citizen requests that the ethics office of the Department of Interior scrutinize these recently-released documents and other relevant information and investigate whether David Bernhardt’s previous occupation as a lobbyist on energy affairs and other natural resources issues[3] involves sufficient conflicts of interest to cause violations of paragraphs 6 and 7 of Trump’s ethics Executive Order or the conflict of interest code (18 U.S.C. §208).”

The complaint also noted that Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) called for a criminal investigation into whether DOI staff orchestrated a cover-up to protect Bernhardt during his confirmation hearing.

“Officials at Interior are now on the record admitting what we suspected all along: they orchestrated a coverup to protect Secretary Bernhardt during his confirmation, and all but lied to Congress about it,” the two lawmakers said in a joint statement last week. “We call on the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation into whether or not Jorjani perjured himself before Congress when he assured the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that there was no ‘heightened’ FOIA review process.”

Read the full complaint below:

Public Citizen Bernhardt Complaint-combined by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via YouTube screengrab]


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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.