Interior official broke ethics rules, government watchdog concludes

(Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Interior) Douglas Domenech broke federal ethics rules by improperly meeting with his former employer, a conservative research organization, to discuss the rollback of endangered species protections that the group had been pushing, the department’s internal watchdog said in a report obtained by The New York Times.

Washington • A top Interior Department official broke a federal ethics rule by improperly meeting with his former employer, a conservative research organization, to discuss the rollback of endangered species protections that the group had been pushing, the department’s internal watchdog said in a report published Tuesday.

The watchdog, the Interior Department’s inspector general, concluded that the official, Douglas W. Domenech, an assistant secretary for the office with stewardship of the nation’s oceans and coasts, violated federal rules in April 2017 when he met with representatives of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where he was working before he joined the Trump administration, creating the appearance of a conflict of interest.

A separate inspector general investigation made public Tuesday cleared the Interior secretary, David Bernhardt, of charges that he improperly tried to influence or delay a scientific report on the effects of pesticides on endangered species. The inspector general found that Bernhardt had intervened in the writing of the report, which likely delayed its publication and may have changed some of its content. But the investigation concluded that Bernhardt’s actions, which were first reported in a New York Times investigation, did not constitute an ethics violation and that none of his former lobbying clients would have been affected by the outcome of the report.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, which received substantial funding from Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers who have fought environmental regulations, has salted the Trump administration with many of its top officials, elevating its influence and prestige.

Federal ethics laws prohibit government officials from meeting with their former employers for at least a year after they take public office to prevent those employers from improperly influencing the outcomes of public policy. At the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is based in Austin, Domenech led the group’s Fueling Freedom Project, which aims to “explain the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels” by making the case that preserving oil, natural gas and coal shields the poor from higher energy costs.

Domenech — the father of conservative personality Ben Domenech, a co-founder of The Federalist and the husband of Meghan McCain — also worked on lawsuits designed to undo or weaken federal environmental policies.

His April 2017 meeting with his former employer, which was still pursuing litigation against the Interior Department, was a clear violation of federal rules, the inspector general said.

The report highlighted an email Domenech sent to a Texas Public Policy Foundation attorney shortly after the meeting, saying, “Keep fighting.”

Nicholas Goodwin, a spokesman for the Interior Department, wrote in an email, “While Assistant Secretary Domenech did not do anything partial in meeting with a former employer, the Department concurs with the Inspector General’s report that Assistant Secretary Domenech should have considered the appearance of meeting with a former employer.”

Goodwin said that Domenech has received additional ethics training and guidance, and said the Interior Department considers the matter resolved.

A spokeswoman for the Interior Department’s inspector general declined to comment on the reports.

“This is now a familiar pattern: time and again, Trump appointees at the Department of the Interior think the rules don’t apply to them, and they act accordingly,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who requested the investigation.

“These ethics rules are just common sense, to ensure public officials are actually acting in the public interest, and not in their own interest or in the interests of their prior employers,” Udall said. “The secretary should take strong public action to show that these violations won’t be tolerated, and to make sure other Interior officials pay attention to the rules.”

Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, said the watchdog’s report on Bernhardt exonerated the secretary.

“Contrary to false allegations lodged at David Bernhardt during his Senate confirmation process, the Inspector General has confirmed Secretary Bernhardt never interfered with scientific findings,” he said. “Once again, facts have revealed hyperpartisanship that has blinded Democrats from focusing on real issues rather than attempting to besmirch dedicated public servants in this administration.”

A spokeswoman for the Texas Public Policy Foundation did not respond to a telephone message or email requesting comment.

The investigation of Domenech could shed light on higher-profile inquiries that the Interior Department’s inspector general is conducting into the conduct of about half a dozen of President Donald Trump’s senior appointees at the Interior Department, which oversees the nation’s public lands, waters, parks and endangered species.

Several of the current investigations focus on Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist who, like Domenech, has also been accused of creating the appearance that he is improperly working on behalf of former clients.

Trump’s first appointee to lead the Interior Department, Ryan Zinke, resigned last year amid similar allegations of unethical conduct.

Bernhardt remains under investigation for allegations that he has personally pushed for the Interior Department to make policy changes that benefited his former clients at the expense of the agency’s own scientific findings and the law, and that he violated federal lobbying laws by continuing to lobby on behalf of a former client after he dropped his lobbying registration.

The report on Domenech is expected to be the first of several investigations of Interior Department officials to be published in the coming months, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Domenech served in the Interior Department during nearly the entire George W. Bush administration, when the agency became ensnared in corruption scandals. In one such scandal, a deputy secretary of the interior, J. Steven Griles, was imprisoned for lying to a Senate committee about his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The inspector general’s report noted that, as a former administration official with broad experience in office, Domenech had received ethics training on multiple occasions. But Domenech told investigators that he had not fully understood the ethics rules before attending the meetings with his former employer.

However, in 2018 Domenech read a newspaper article describing similar meetings between an Interior Department official and a former employer, describing such meetings as inappropriate, and then told the agency’s senior lawyers about his meetings.

According to the report, Domenech told the inspector general that he had scheduled two April 2017 meetings with the Texas Public Policy Foundation at the request of the organization’s attorney.

At the meetings, which were also attended by two other top Interior Department officials, the participants discussed two key topics of interest to the foundation: its litigation concerning the Bone Cave harvestman, an endangered orange spider whose preservation had affected Texas land use, and a legal dispute between the Interior Department and Texas residents near the state’s Red River.

This year, the Interior Department announced that it was opening a review to consider removing Endangered Species Act protections on the Bone Cave harvestman, which has been protected under the law since 1988.

Domenech told agency watchdog officials that he was aware of the prohibition on government officials meeting with former employers but believed he was exempt from that rule because, while at the foundation, he had not worked specifically on policy matters involving the spider or the Red River case.

Domenech told investigators that his follow-up “Keep fighting” email, which also focused on the Bone Cave harvestman, was “his way of encouraging the TPPR to continue to pursue its constitutional rights,” the report said, “and he denied that he was commenting on the litigation in any way.”