Interior IG nominee has ‘zero intention’ of shutting down ongoing ethics probes

The Interior Department hasn’t had a permanent inspector general at the helm for more than a decade, but President Donald Trump’s pick for the job told members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee he has “zero intention” of shutting down ongoing conflict of interest probes of the agency’s leadership, including those involving Secretary David Bernhardt.

“I have no problem making referrals over to the Department of Justice. If there’s an obstruction of our investigation into agency employees, I’ll have DoJ on speed-dial if I need to,” Interior IG nominee Mark Greenblatt said Thursday in a confirmation hearing. “We are going to do our investigations in a fair, objective, independent way. We’re going to follow the evidence wherever it goes, we’re going to do thorough exhaustive investigations and we will close them when they’re closed.”

Prior to his nomination, Greenblatt worked in the special investigations unit of the Justice Department’s OIG and later became assistant inspector general for investigations at the Commerce Department’s IG office.

In that latter role, an investigation by his office found 40 Census Bureau employees had falsely claimed nearly 20,000 hours of work they did not do, leading to more than a $1 million in improper payments.

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For the past 10 years, Mary Kendall has served as the acting Interior IG. However, Kendall announced that she’ll step down from her position later this month, and will serve as deputy IG at Amtrak.

Committee Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) thanked Kendall for her service as Interior’s top watchdog, but stressed the need for permanent leadership, especially at the agency with the longest permanent IG vacancy in government. 

“The department should not be run by acting officials. Our laws and our Constitution require Senate confirmation of its principal officers. So I’m pleased that we finally have these nominations,” Manchin said.

Manchin also highlighted the OIG’s work in bringing to light sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the National Park Service on what he called an “epidemic proportion.”

While Greenblatt said some agency OIGs consider sexual harassment investigations out of their purview, he said Interior OIG has taken a “proactive” approach to looking into the issue.

“When it rises to a pervasive level that impacts the operations of the entity, then that’s when it gets OIG involvement,” Greenblatt said.

If confirmed, Greenblatt would serve as the agency’s top watchdog at a time when the OIG is looking into at least seven ethics violations against Bernhardt. And before that, the watchdog spent considerable time and effort looking into allegations of ethics violations concerning former Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Last October, Interior walked back claims that it would replace acting IG Kendall while her office continued work on its probes against Zinke.

More notably, those claims came from Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who congratulated former HUD political appointee Suzanne Tufts on her new role as acting Interior IG in a since-deleted tweet. An Interior spokeswoman said Carson “had false information” about the position.

The committee also heard from Daniel Jorjani, the Trump administration’s pick for agency solicitor who currently serves as the agency’s principal deputy solicitor.

Both nominees, if confirmed, would find themselves working together in some aspects. In the event the OIG finds an Interior employee has engaged in misconduct, it would refer that case to the general counsel’s office to determine disciplinary measure.

Both positions “must play lead roles in ensuring the integrity of the department and its officials, ensuring that they meet the highest ethical standards,” Manchin said. “They both must be willing and able to speak truth to power.”

However, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) questioned Jorjani’s stance on agency oversight.

“‘OIGs love travel investigations — they’re easy to document and spin in a negative way,’’ King said, citing one of Jorjani’s emails.

Several former Trump cabinet secretaries, including Zinke, have faced scrutiny for travel spending during their tenure.

“What the hell do you mean by that?” King then asked. “Doesn’t that imply disrespect for the Office of Inspector General?”

“I can only say I have the highest utmost respect to the Office of Inspector General,” Jorjani said, adding that travel policy violations are “incredibly easy to document.”

Jorjani also added said the agency has recently hired more than 40 career ethics officials and expects to bring another 25 personnel on board before the end of September.

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