POLITICS
04/15/2019 18:54 EDT

Interior Department Watchdog Opens Ethics Probe Of New Agency Chief

David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist, was confirmed as the new Interior secretary four days ago.

The Interior Department’s internal watchdog confirmed Monday that it has opened a formal investigation into numerous ethics complaints against David Bernhardt, the agency’s newly confirmed secretary. 

Mary Kendall, the agency’s deputy inspector general, confirmed the probe in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), one of several Democrats who requested the agency review Bernhardt’s conduct. 

The Office of Inspector General received seven complaints “from a wide assortment of complainants alleging various potential conflict of interest and other violations” by Bernhardt, Kendall wrote. 

The former oil and gas lobbyist was confirmed to the agency’s top post less than a week ago. He is among several Interior officials who have been accused of violating ethics rules and came under increased scrutiny after two recent New York Times articles showed he intervened to block a scientific report on the threat certain pesticides pose to endangered species and continued to lobby for a former client months after signing papers promising to cease such activity.

In a floor speech ahead of last week’s Senate vote, Wyden predicted that confirming Bernhardt would lead to an “ethical typhoon” that resembles the tenure of former Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned in January amid mounting scandals.

“This is exactly why I wanted a delay in Bernhardt’s consideration. 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.”

In an April 3 letter, several Senate Democrats called on Interior’s internal watchdog to investigate allegations that he suppressed science by the Fish and Wildlife Service. And Wyden requested last week that the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia “thoroughly investigate potential civil and criminal violations” of lobbying rules by Bernhardt and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the law firm where for eight years he lobbied on behalf of oil, gas, mining and agricultural interests.

Bernhardt has maintained that he’s complied with all ethics rules and touted his efforts to improve what he called a “badly neglected” ethics infrastructure at the agency.

Interior did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. But in a statement to the Washington Examiner and other outlets, Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Bernhardt is in “complete compliance” with all applicable laws and President Donald Trump’s ethics pledge, which bars political appointees in the executive branch from participating in certain matters involving former employers or clients for two years.

“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,” Vander Voort said.