Whenever President Trump nominates someone to take over for whichever administration official was most recently forced to leave office, ethical concerns about the successor are soon to follow. But it’s unlikely anyone has been investigated as quickly as David Bernhardt. On Thursday, the former oil lobbyist was confirmed as Trump’s new Secretary of the Interior. On Monday, the department’s inspector general launched an investigation into ethical concerns that have been swirling since he took over as the department’s deputy secretary in August 2017.
The investigation comes after a group of Democratic senators and multiple ethics groups appealed to the Interior Department’s IG to look into Bernhardt’s conduct. On Monday, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote the senators to announce she had opened an investigation based on “a wide assortment of complainants” alleging “conflicts of interest and other violations.” She added that their complaint was one of seven she had received regarding Bernhardt’s conduct.
The concerns relating to Bernhardt’s reluctance to leave his lobbying work behind after he started working for the government were spurred by a series of New York Times investigations:
- While working as a lobbyist for California farming group Westlands Water District, Bernhardt worked to strip protections for an endangered fish in an effort to enable access to irrigation water. The Times reported in February that Bernhardt continued his efforts after he took over as deputy secretary in 2017.
- In March, the the Times reported that Bernhardt led an effort to block the Fish and Wildlife Service from releasing a report about the danger pesticides pose for endangered species.
- In early April, the Times reported that Bernhardt continued to do lobbying work months after he signed and filed an official disclosure promising he had ceased all such work. A spokesperson for Bernhardt said that the forms had been labelled incorrectly.
Trump plucked the 49-year-old Bernhardt from his lobbying efforts to become then-secretary Ryan Zinke’s deputy in April 2017. He was confirmed that August before becoming acting secretary after Zinke was forced to resign last December amid — you guessed it — a flurry of ethical concerns. Trump then nominated Bernhardt to take over on a permanent basis. He was confirmed last Thursday by a vote of 56-41. All 53 Republican senators voted in favor of Bernhardt, along with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM).
Though Bernhardt may be just as deserving of scrutiny as Zinke, he’s at least made some sort of an effort to be principled. Last fall, the Washington Post reported that he carries around a card listing all of his conflicts of interest so he doesn’t accidentally slip up and do favors for organization at odds with the mission of the department he’s supposed to represent. The crib notes aren’t likely to land him any sympathy points from the inspector general’s office.