Trump's new Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, confirmed days ago, is now under investigation

Key Points
  • The Interior Department's inspector general will investigate conflict of interest complaints against Secretary David Bernhardt, who was confirmed to the role just days ago.
  • The probe follows a report on Bernhardt's involvement rolling back wildlife protections, which would benefit his former farming industry clients.
  • Interior says Bernhardt "is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations."
U.S. President Donald Trump and acting U.S. Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt arrive to place a wreath at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, U.S., January 21, 2019.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters

Newly appointed Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt is the latest member of President Donald Trump's Cabinet to come under investigation by his own agency's watchdog.

The Interior Department's Office of Inspector General on Monday confirmed that it has opened an investigation into allegations of conflict of interest and other violations during Bernhardt's tenure as the agency's deputy secretary.

The confirmation comes less than a week after the Senate confirmed Bernhardt to his position. It keeps the spotlight on the nation's top steward of public lands, whose past lobbying for energy and agribusiness clients drew scrutiny from Democrats during confirmation hearings.

The probe is the latest to target a member of Trump's administration, which has been dogged by allegations of conflict of interest and self-dealing. Similar investigations paved the way for the departure of Bernhardt's predecessor, Ryan Zinke, and the exit of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The disclosure was made in a letter to Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. Last month, the lawmakers asked the inspector general to look into whether there was anything improper about Bernhardt's participation in regulatory activity that affected former clients. Bernhardt previously chaired the natural resources practice at lobbying and law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall told the lawmakers that the office "has received seven complaints, including yours, from a wide assortment of complainants and have opened an investigation to address them."

McCollum and Udall requested an investigation following a New York Times report on Bernhardt's involvement rolling back wildlife protections, which would benefit his former clients in the California farming industry.

US speeds up permit process for oil and gas exploration on federal land

The Times later reported that Bernhardt continued doing work for a former client, the Westlands Water District, several months after affirming he had stopped lobbying. An Interior Department spokesperson told the Times the work did not qualify as "regulated lobbying activity."

McCollum and Udall hailed the inspector general's investigation as an important step in safeguarding the public interest, federal lands and the nation's natural resources.

"The American public deserves to have the basic confidence that their Interior Secretary is looking out for their interests — protecting public land, species, the air and the water — and not the interests of former industry clients," Udall said in a statement.

An Interior spokesperson said Bernhardt "is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations."

"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," press secretary Faith Vander Voort said in a statement.

The Interior Department's portfolio includes overseeing drilling and mining on government-owned land. That makes Bernhardt a key figure in executing Trump's effort to cut red tape and promote energy production and exports.

The investigation illustrates the risk of appointing former lobbyists to regulate and interact with the industries they once represented. Pruitt's successor as EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal lobbyist. The EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, William Wehrum, fought for years to roll back air pollution rules on behalf of energy and chemicals clients.