Six senior Interior Department political appointees are at the heart of "a disturbing pattern of misconduct" involving cozy relationships with their former employees, the Campaign Legal Center alleges in a complaint to the department's inspector general.
At a time when Republicans and Democrats alike say they're troubled by the ethical climate in Washington, particular attention has been focused on Interior since the start of the Trump administration. In December, Secretary Ryan Zinke was forced out amid multiple probes of his real estate dealings and other potential conflicts of interest – the fourth member of Trump's Cabinet to resign under an ethics cloud. And his would-be successor, David Bernhardt, is facing a tough path to Senate confirmation because of his past as an oil and agriculture industry lobbyist.
The Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group focused on government accountability, contends that some of the officials named may have used their positions to give their former work colleagues – now in industries regulated by the department and at conservative think tanks – insider knowledge of Interior activities. Under the White House's "drain the swamp" ethics policies, such officials are supposed to wait two years after their leaving the administration before having any interaction about policy with previous employers.
"This is a big deal," CLC ethics lawyer Delaney Marsco told the Intercept, which provided some of the reporting that led to the complaint. "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."
The Interior Department has declined to comment on the specifics. But Bernhardt, who is running the department as acting secretary, announced recently that he had boosted Interior's own watchdog operations in an effort to "dramatically transform a culture of ethics avoidance into one of ethics compliance."