The Trump administration continues to establish corruption as its brand. This Monday, less than a week after the Senate confirmed him to his position, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt faced a new investigation from the inspector general’s office overseeing his department. Deputy inspector general Mary Kendall told Democratic members of Congress who’d previously raised concerns:
‘The Office of Inspector General for the Department of Interior has received seven complaints, including yours, from a wide assortment of complainants alleging various conflicts of interest and other violations… We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them. We will conduct our review as expeditiously and thoroughly as possible.’
The issues that Sens. Tom Udall (D-Utah), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and others have raised concerns about center on Bernhardt’s past as a lobbyist representing the same industries that he’s supposed to impartially oversee in his present position. He continued to work as a lobbyist even after filing paperwork declaring he’d put an end to the work, and even pushed policy his former lobbying client wanted while on the job. It’s a pretty clear-cut case of an apparent conflict of interest, making you wonder how much farther the Trump team could even take ethics violations.
Besides those lobbying-related issues, concerned observers have also drawn attention to Bernhardt having helped block the release of a report outlining the harmful effects of a certain pesticide. The concern stretches across his time at the Interior Department as a deputy secretary before his elevation to acting and eventual “permanent” secretary after the departure of Trump’s first appointee, Ryan Zinke.
Unsurprisingly, Bernhardt has denied wrongdoing. His spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort responded to the new investigation by asserting, besides that her boss is in “complete compliance” with all applicable ethics laws:
‘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 compliance.’
You don’t get brownie points on the scrutinized issues for having supposedly been in compliance on completely separate, even if related issues. There’s a tradition inside the Trump team to dismiss the legitimacy of investigations as much as there’s one of the corrupt behavior that sparks the investigations in the first place. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is only one available example of many.
Before Bernhardt was ever the center of attention, his current office’s former occupant Ryan Zinke attracted serious scrutiny including via an investigation that was eventually referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal charges. He stood to directly financially benefit from a land purchase by Halliburton, the oil giant.
Other officials in similar positions have faced similar inquiries. Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, for instance, resigned in the face of a whole host of inquiries into ways he used his office for his personal benefit. Other Cabinet Secretaries including former Veterans Affairs chief David Shulkin and former head of the Department of Health and Human Services Tom Price did the same, adding to the already bloated picture of corruption provided by Donald Trump himself.
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