David Bernhardt was confirmed by the Senate as the secretary of the Interior last week, formally replacing former secretary Ryan Zinke who resigned in disgrace as ethics investigations and even a potential criminal probe encircled him.
And on Monday, before his first official day on the job was over, the department’s inspector general confirmed that Bernhardt, too, is now under investigation.
Deputy IG Mary Kendall revealed the investigation in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). Wyden, along with Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) had written to the inspector general’s office fearing that the secretary “inappropriately blocked a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) assessment of the effect of toxic pesticides on several endangered species.”
Kendall confirmed that, including Wyden and Hirono’s letter, she has received seven complaints about Bernhardt “alleging various conflicts of interests and other violations” when he served in the deputy secretary role in the department.
“We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them,” Kendall wrote. “We will conduct our review as expeditiously and thoroughly as practicable.”
As a former fossil fuel lobbyist, Bernhardt’s role as the head of the Interior Department, which oversees the use of federal lands and natural resources, presents an expansive possibility for conflicts of interest.
"David Bernhardt should have neither been nominated nor confirmed to serve as Secretary of the Interior. Like with so many of his colleagues in Donald Trump’s cabinet, Secretary Bernhardt has extensive conflicts of interests and is hostile to the mission of the Department he leads,” said Hirono in a statement. “I am concerned that the Secretary put his own interests, and those of his clients in the oil and gas industry, above the Department’s own career scientists.”
Bernhardt, for his part, denies any wrongdoing or conflicts.
“Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” said Faith Vander Voort, a spokesperson for the secretary. “It is important to note that the Department Ethics Office has already conducted a review of many of these accusations at Mr. Bernhardt’s request and determined that Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance.”
But with all the suspicion around his taking the role, why has the White House stood by him? The best bet is that they assume that Democrats will go after anyone they put up for the job. But that probably says much more about the people the Trump administration thinks are appropriate for a position overseeing federal lands than it does about the opposition party.