Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is taking action to improve on a record of ethical “lapses” at the agency over recent years that has led to investigations of top staff.
Bernhardt issued an order Wednesday that consolidates Interior’s ethics programs, which sprawl across 13 various departments and central headquarters.
The order realigns Interior ethics programs so that ethics officials at the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and other departments, some of which lacked sufficient personnel, report to Interior’s Departmental Ethics Office rather than to individual department directors.
“It is making the program across the department a lot more accountable and consistent across all bureaus and offices,” Scott de la Vega, director of Interior’s Departmental Ethics Office, said in an interview. “We had a situation before where some bureaus and offices would give different advice to our employees than others. That does not serve employees very well.”
Critics, however, said Bernhardt is an inappropriate messenger for the ethics program restructuring given he is under investigation himself by the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office.
Interior’s internal watchdog is investigating whether Bernhardt’s prior work at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he represented oil and gas companies and water districts, influenced his actions as deputy Interior secretary — a position he held before rising to lead the agency.
Bernhardt has rejected allegations of wrongdoing, telling senators during his confirmation hearing in March that he has implemented “incredibly robust” screening processes to ensure he doesn’t meet with former firms or clients on “particular matters.”
The inspector general’s office is also investigating six other Trump administration Interior appointees, according to the Washington Post, to examine whether they violated federal ethics rules by interacting with former clients on department-related business. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned in December while he was facing ethics investigations that remain ongoing.
“Today’s order will only deepen the ethical crisis at the Interior Department’s top levels,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group, accusing Bernhardt of giving too much power to political appointees.
Weiss criticized Bernhardt for rearranging the Departmental Ethics Office so that it reports directly to Interior’s solicitor general, the agency’s top lawyer.
President Trump’s nominee to be Interior solicitor general, Daniel Jorjani, has not been confirmed by the Senate yet and is serving in the role on an acting basis, as Democrats have accused him of participating in an ethics policy at the department that gave political appointees more power over public records.
De la Vega, the career official who leads Interior’s Departmental Ethics Office, defended Bernhardt’s sincerity in pursuing improvements to the agency’s ethics program.
He noted that Bernhardt has overseen the hiring of 42 career ethics officials in the past 15 months. Since 2017, the department has increased the number of full-time, career ethics employees by 162%, nearly doubling the total hired during the Obama administration, he said.
“I won't speak to any specific investigations that are ongoing,” De la Vega said. “But everything I have seen from the secretary on this is he is very earnest and very dedicated to leaving a legacy of a strong ethics program. He fully recognizes that when an agency does not have a strong ethics program, that it can harm the agency's mission. Ethics is not a partisan issue.”