Watchdogs Open Ethics Probe on Interior

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Interior Department's internal watchdog confirmed on Tuesday that it is investigating allegations of ethical misconduct by senior political appointees at the agency, an announcement that comes a week after the disclosure of a similar investigation of newly confirmed Secretary David Bernhardt.

Both investigations by the Interior Department's Office of the Inspector General were prompted by allegations that senior Trump administration appointees at the agency had been involved with department decision-making on issues involving former employers or lobbying clients.

"We hope this investigation will answer whether these officials are working on behalf of the American people, or on behalf of the interests that used to pay their salary," said Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which asked for the new probe.

Citing Interior appointment calendars and other documents, the group asked the agency's internal investigators to look into whether a half dozen senior agency officials were involved in Interior actions dealing with their former employers, including a conservative Texas think-tank and the National Rifle Association.

For example, the group cited calendar items that it said showed Interior assistant secretary Doug Domenech met with his former employer, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, on litigation between the think-tank and Interior over endangered-species protections.

Trump administration ethics pledges limit dealings on regulatory matters that senior political appointees can have with former employers.

Spokeswoman Nancy DiPaolo of Interior's Office of the Inspector General confirmed that another investigation had begun, but declined to identify the officials under scrutiny or say how many were now under investigation.

Interior Department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in an email that the agency's ethics office had "reviewed each matter, and provided materials to the chief of staff, who has taken appropriate actions."

She declined to elaborate on what actions were taken.

Democratic senators had sought the earlier-announced internal investigation of Bernhardt. Their complaint centered on allegations Bernhardt was involved in Interior Department deliberations with former lobbying clients, including a politically influential California water agency.