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‘Skirting ethical rules’: Trump’s key staff under investigation at interior agency

Following allegations of a “disturbing pattern of misconduct” at Donald Trump’s interior department, based in part on Guardian reporting, the agency’s watchdog has opened an investigation into six top officials there.

It comes in response to a 20 February ethics complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan watchdog group, that alleged a culture of “skirting ethical rules” among key staff appointed in the wake of Trump’s November 2016 election victory.

“An agency’s ethical culture depends on ethical leadership,” said Delaney Marsco, the Campaign Legal Center’s ethics counsel. “Former [interior] secretary Ryan Zinke and [current interior] secretary David Bernhardt, now under investigation himself for ethics violations, have failed to demonstrate adequate ethical behavior at the top of Interior.”

“Their cavalier approach to ethics appears to have spread throughout the agency, with a pattern emerging where officials have routinely disregarded obligations to remove themselves from official meetings with former employers or lobbying clients.”

Last week, the inspector general opened a wide-ranging investigation into allegations that Bernhardt has violated federal ethics rules by involving himself in a series of official decisions that potentially benefited his former lobbying clients, such as a powerful agricutural group in California. That investigation is ongoing.

The new inquiry is scrutinizing the activities of a handful of high-ranking officials at the department, including assistant secretary Douglas Domenech, a close personal confidant of Bernhardt.

As the Guardian first reported last year, public records show that in April 2017 Domenech met twice in an official capacity with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative thinktank that employed him before he joined the interior department in the early days of the Trump administration. According to his calendars, Domenech met with the Texas foundation to discuss a pair of lawsuits it had filed against the interior department concerning endangered species and private property rights. Roughly six months after its meeting with Domenech, the interior department settled one of those lawsuits in what the foundation described as a “major win”.

Domenech’s meetings appear to violate the White House ethics pledge that bar government officials during their first two years in office from meeting with former employers to discuss specific policy matters. The Campaign Legal Center cited The Guardian’s reporting.

The Campaign Legal Center’s complaint also draws on documents first reported by the Guardian showing that an interior department political appointee named Timothy Williams met with his former employer, the Koch-brother-backed group Americans for Prosperity, roughly three months after taking office. The meeting was focused on how the interior department and Americans for Prosperity might better partner on “shared priorities” and also appears to be a violation of federal ethics rules.

In addition, the complaint cites a HuffPo report detailing how the interior department’s White House liaison, Lori Mashburn, potentially violated federal ethics rules by attending a series of private events sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, her former employer.

Faith Vander Voort, a spokesperson for the interior department, wrote in a statement that the interior department takes “ethics issues seriously”.

“The Office of the Secretary immediately consulted with the Department Ethics Office after receiving the subject complaints,” she wrote. “Ethics reviewed each matter, and provided materials to the chief of staff, who has taken appropriate actions. All of these materials have been provided to the inspector general.”

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