Politics: Six Trump Interior appointees are being investigated for possible ethical misconduct - PressFrom - US

PoliticsSix Trump Interior appointees are being investigated for possible ethical misconduct

22:15  23 april  2019
22:15  23 april  2019 Source:   washingtonpost.com

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Six Trump Interior appointees are being investigated for possible ethical misconduct© Getty Washington DC, Department of the Interior, building entrance and steps. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images)

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General has opened an investigation into whether six of President Trump’s appointees have violated federal ethics rules by engaging with their former employers or clients on department-related business.

The new inquiry, which the office confirmed in an April 18 letter to the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, is looking into senior Interior officials, including Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Doug Domenech, White House liaison Lori Mashburn and three top staffers at the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs. The Campaign Legal Center detailed the officials’ actions in a Feb. 20 letter to the inspector general’s office, suggesting a probe was warranted.

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To avoid conflicts of interest, Trump signed an executive order days after taking office that requires appointees to recuse themselves from specific matters involving their former employers and clients for two years. The complaint, which cites reports in HuffPost and the Guardian as well as extensive public records, outlines how a half-dozen political appointees at Interior continued to discuss policy matters with organizations that had employed them in the past.

The Guardian reported in May 2018 that Domenech, the highest-ranking official named in the complaint, continued to interact with the conservative think tank that used to employ him before he joined Interior.

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Domenech’s calendars indicated that he twice met with representatives from the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation on an endangered species listing and a property dispute. The group had lawsuits pending with Interior over both issues and settled the endangered species case with the department six months after the meeting with Domenech.

Cassidy, a former lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, has also attracted significant attention since joining the department for his work on gun-related issues.

Calendars released by Interior show Cassidy participating in a December 2017 meeting regarding Trump’s decision to scale back two national monuments in Utah, even though Cassidy had lobbied Congress on a bill addressing the president’s ability to establish national monuments just months earlier. This activity, first reported by HuffPost, could violate the federal ethics pledge because Cassidy was prohibited from engaging in particular matters on which he had lobbied during the two years before joining the department.

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Cassidy had also been in contact with a current NRA lobbyist about opening up Bureau of Land Management lands in Arizona and Utah to recreational shooting. Interior ultimately decided to allow recreational shooting in the Sonoran Desert National Monument, the option endorsed by the NRA.

The center also alleges that Mashburn, a former associate director at the conservative Heritage Foundation, violated her ethics pledge by attending multiple private events held by her former employer.

Nancy DiPaolo, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said in an email, “We have opened an investigation and are considering all the material presented by CLC, but because it is an active investigation, have no further comments.”

The move comes a week after the office launched a probe into whether Interior Secretary David Bernhardt violated federal conflict of interest rules by weighing in on policies that could affect the former clients he represented while working at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Bernhardt, who was confirmed earlier this month, has denied any wrongdoing and said he has cleared any action affecting his former employer or clients with the department’s ethics office.

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Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in an email that while the department does not typically comment on personnel matters, the secretary’s office “immediately consulted” with department ethics officials after receiving the center’s complaint in February.

“Ethics reviewed each matter, and provided materials to the Chief of Staff, who has taken appropriate actions. All of these materials have been provided to the Inspector General,” said Vander Voort, who declined to specify what actions the department had taken. “The department takes ethics issues seriously.”

The three senior officials at the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs now under investigation are Todd Wynn, Benjamin Cassidy and Timothy Williams. All of the officials named in the complaint continue to work at Interior except for Vincent DeVito, who left his job as the department energy policy counselor in August to join an offshore oil drilling firm.

“This new investigation into multiple senior Interior officials for potential ethics violations confirms that political appointees at the agency have been disregarding the ethical obligations of public service,” Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said in an email.

She added that neither Bernhardt nor his predecessor Ryan Zinke, who resigned in January amid multiple ethics probes, had set the proper example at Interior.

“Their cavalier approach to ethics appears to have spread throughout the agency, with a pattern emerging where officials have routinely disregarded obligations to remove themselves from official meetings with former employers or lobbying clients,” Marsco said. “We hope this investigation will answer whether these officials are working on behalf of the American people, or on behalf of the interests that used to pay their salary.”

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