Only a few short weeks after President Donald Trump nominated David Bernhardt, a former oil and agriculture industry lobbyist, to run the Interior Department, the agency is facing a slew of new allegations that top officials violated federal ethics rules by keeping cozy ties to their former employers.
A lengthy ethics complaint filed Wednesday by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, outlines “a disturbing pattern of misconduct” at the scandal-plagued Interior Department, including meetings that violate the White House’s own ethical pledge and good governance standards.
The Campaign Legal Center used public records, some of which were first obtained by The Intercept, to lodge the complaint against six top Interior Department officials, including Benjamin Cassidy, a top official at the department’s external affairs office and former National Rifle Association lobbyist; Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Douglas Domenech; White House liaison Lori Mashburn, a former Heritage Foundation staffer; and others.
The officials are among a little-known but powerful group of Department of Interior political appointees — many of whom joined the agency after careers with fossil fuel groups or conservative lobbying organizations. Amid an environment of persistent ethics issues at the Interior Department, these officials are responsible for the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to roll back environmental protections and open public lands to extractive industry interests.
Even as they’ve succeeded at this effort, however, several of these appointees have struggled to comply with federal ethics rules governing conflicts of interest, drawing intense and unwanted criticism from environmentalists, government watchdog groups, and the general public.
Among other allegations, the Campaign Legal Center contends that some of these officials have apparently used their government positions to provide their former private employers with access and insight into the Interior Department’s activities. Under the White House’s own ethics pledge, executive branch officials are explicitly prohibited for a period of two years from the date of their appointment from meeting or communicating with previous employers to discuss specific policy matters.
“This is a big deal. It not only reveals a pattern of indifference toward ethics at Interior’s highest levels, but it also calls into question the true motives of our public servants.”
“Based on what we know, it appears that top Interior Department officials have violated both the ethics pledge and the requirement that public officials avoid even the appearance of impropriety,” says Delaney Marsco, a legal counsel specializing in ethics at the Campaign Legal Center. “This is a big deal. It not only reveals a pattern of indifference toward ethics at Interior’s highest levels, but it also calls into question the true motives of our public servants tasked with the immense responsibility of managing the country’s natural resources.”
Provided with a detailed query outlining alleged ethical violations, an Interior Department spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics or make the involved officials available for interviews. “The Department takes ethics agreements very seriously,” said the spokesperson, deputy press secretary Faith Vander Voort. “All Interior political appointees received ethics training from career ethics officials in the fall of 2018. The Department is committed to creating a culture of compliance.”
The allegations, which the Campaign Legal Center filed with the department’s Office of Inspector General, come in the wake of a relentless stream of scandals, investigations, and damaging headlines that have battered the powerful Interior Department.
A Pattern of Ethical Lapses
A sprawling federal agency, the department controls approximately 500 million acres of public land, oversees endangered species programs, administers Native American trust lands, directs crucial scientific research, and controls rich deposits of federally owned oil, gas, and coal, among other essential duties. With roughly 70,000 employees and control over vast swaths of federal land across the country, the Interior Department is a cabinet-level agency whose impact on American life is difficult to overstate.
The most high-profile controversies to trouble the department over the course of the last two years involved former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican who left office in early January amid a torrent of federal investigations into his conduct.
Zinke’s resignation, though, has done little to ease the department’s ethics woes.
Some top officials at the department have been caught in apparent violation of federal ethics rules. Others have interfered with scientific research that the department funds or oversees. Still others have spent their time in office bending government policy to benefit industry lobbyists and conservative operatives.
The new Campaign Legal Center complaint comes at a particularly sensitive time for the Interior Department. On February 4, Trump announced in a tweet that he planned to nominate Bernhardt, a longtime lobbyist for the fossil fuel and agriculture industries, as his next Interior secretary. Bernhardt is currently serving as the Interior Department’s acting secretary and has earned a reputation as a savvy Washington insider with deep ties to corporate interests across the American West.
As he prepares to appear before the Senate for his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt has made moves in recent weeks to rehabilitate the Interior Department’s battered reputation. In a letter sent earlier this month to the entire Interior Department staff, Bernhardt said he had recruited a cohort of new ethics officials in an effort to “dramatically transform a culture of ethics avoidance into one of ethics compliance.”
The Campaign Legal Center’s complaint, though, could undermine Bernhardt’s efforts to clean up the department’s public image. It can be expected to draw renewed attention to ethics problems among top Interior Department officials at a time when the agency is already facing heightened scrutiny from Congress.
NRA’s Man at Interior
A longtime lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, Cassidy enjoyed a lucrative career in Washington, D.C., before joining the Interior Department in the fall of 2017. Upon taking office, Cassidy promptly used his new position to involve himself in numerous policy issues that pertain directly to his former employer, the NRA, according to records The Intercept obtained using the Freedom of Information Act.
In one instance, Cassidy sent a former colleague at the hard-line gun group a tip about an Interior Department proposal to close a portion of federally owned land near Salt Lake City, Utah, to target shooting, a move which the NRA criticized.
“Are you all aware of this? Please share any concerns or insights.”
“Are you all aware of this?” he asked NRA Conservation Director Susan Recce, as well as a handful of other interested parties, in a November 2017 email sent little more than a month after he took office. “Please share any concerns or insights.” Recce responded shortly thereafter, describing the NRA’s specific problems with the shooting closure. (Recce did not return a request for comment.)
In another instance, according to his official calendar, Cassidy participated in an internal Interior Department meeting in March 2018 to discuss the membership of a newly formed Hunting and Shooting Sports Conservation Council, a body created by Zinke to help him shape federal wildlife and hunting policy. A little more than two months after that meeting, the Interior Department selected two NRA activists — including Chris Cox, the executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action — to be members of the council. Before joining the Interior Department, Cassidy worked and lobbied alongside Cox for the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action.
In still another case, Cassidy communicated with Recce, the NRA official, about a proposal to prohibit recreational shooting in parts of the Sonoran Desert National Monument in southern Arizona. According to Recce’s email summarizing the exchange, Cassidy provided the NRA with insight into the Interior Department’s stance on the matter and took the group’s objections. The Interior Department appears to have ultimately sided with the NRA on the issue, altering the details of its proposal and keeping more of the national monument open to shooting.
Government ethics watchdogs say Cassidy’s involvement in these matters, which has not previously been reported, are apparent violations of federal conflict of interest rules, including the White House’s own ethics pledge that Trump established by executive order in early 2017.
“Unless he received a waiver, Mr. Cassidy’s participation in these communications appears to violate the Trump ethics pledge and undermines its very purpose, which is to avoid the appearance of giving privileged access and influence to his former employer, the NRA,” said Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, in an email. Canter noted that Cassidy’s actions may have violated other federal ethics regulations too. “Mr. Cassidy should have known that his participation in these matters would cause a reasonable person to question his impartiality,” she added. “As a result, his participation in these matters undermines the agency’s integrity in carrying out these programs and operations in possible violation of his ethical obligations under the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch (5 C.F.R. §§ 2635.101(b)(8),(14) and. 502(a))” — the parts of the Code of Federal Regulations that deal with ethics.
In its complaint with the Interior Department inspector general, the Campaign Legal Center draws a similar conclusion, contending that Cassidy clearly “violated the former employer provision of the ethics pledge” and it calls on federal investigators to probe Cassidy’s interactions with the NRA since taking office.
Other former officials from right-wing groups have gained a foothold in the Interior Department as well. Domenech, assistant secretary for insular affairs and a close personal friend of Bernhardt, is another top official who has maintained ties to a former employer. Domenech held two meetings in April 2017 with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a Koch-brother-backed nonprofit where he worked immediately before joining the Trump administration, as first reported by The Guardian and Pacific Standard last spring. According to his official calendar, Domenech met with the conservative group to discuss a pair of lawsuits it had filed against the Interior Department, one concerning property rights and the other concerning endangered species. Roughly six months after the meetings, the two parties settled one of those lawsuits in what Texas Public Policy Foundation described as a “major win.”
In its complaint, the Campaign Legal Center characterizes Domenech’s meetings with the Texas Public Policy Foundation as direct violations of the White House ethics pledge and asks the inspector general to probe them further.
Federal ethics rules appear to have tripped up the Interior Department’s White House liaison, Lori Mashburn, as well. Before joining the department in May 2017, Mashburn was a longtime staffer at the powerful far-right Heritage Foundation, where she worked as an associate director. Less than six months after taking office, Mashburn attended two private events whose participants included high-level Heritage Foundation officials, according to documents first uncovered by HuffPost. As with Cassidy and Domenech, the Campaign Legal Center alleges Mashburn’s decision to engage directly with her former employer in a private setting while on official business is a violation of the White House ethics pledge.
The Campaign Legal Center’s ethics complaint also highlights similar possible ethics infractions by Todd Wynn and Timothy Williams, both top officials at the Interior Department’s external affairs office. The complaint includes allegations against former Interior Department energy counselor Vincent DeVito, who left the agency last year to work for the offshore oil industry and did not respond to messages left with his new employer, Cox Oil Offshore LLC.
For Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources, who are charged with overseeing the Interior Department, this string of apparent ethical lapses is part of an ongoing problem at the crucial federal agency.
“The Interior Department’s culture of corruption under President Trump didn’t start or end with Ryan Zinke,” wrote Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the chair of the committee, in an emailed statement. “These complaints need to be taken seriously, and this administration needs to stop filling our federal agencies with polluter industry loyalists. As Chairman I have no intention of looking the other way when Trump officials violate their ethics pledges or sell out the public trust.”