Bernhardt Upends Interior’s Ethics Department, Leaving It To Political Appointee Under Investigation

Order Overhauling Ethics Department Continues Pattern of Skirting Transparency and Accountability

In a move that will further limit transparency and oversight of the Interior Department’s repeated ethical lapses, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed a Secretarial Order today restructuring Interior’s ethics department. The order forces ethics officials to report to Interior headquarters instead of agency directors and consolidates the ethics team under Acting Solicitor Daniel Jorjani, whose nomination is currently stalled due to charges of perjury during his Senate confirmation hearing. 

“Only weeks after the expiration of his recusal order, David Bernhardt is already looking for easier ways to hand out favors to special interests and former clients without getting caught up in more investigations. Bernhardt’s consolidation of ethics staff is a red flag for anyone concerned with the corruption crisis within Trump’s Interior,” said Chris Saeger, Executive Director of the Western Values Project. “Leaving Interior’s ethics program to Daniel Jorjani, a political appointee who is accused of lying to Congress, is an outright attack on government oversight efforts and any semblance of accountability left within Trump’s cabinet.” 

The controversial move comes just days after Bernhardt’s mandated recusals expired, freeing him up to work more directly on behalf of his former clients. 

Critics of Bernhardt’s ethics overhaul charge that the directive is too broad in scope and a misplaced distraction, given that it’s senior Interior political appointees — not rank-and-file Interior employees — who are already under investigation for potential ethics violations. 

The Interior Department’s culture of corruption started long before the ascension of former mega-lobbyist David Bernhardt to Interior Secretary – but it continues to thrive under his unwatchful eye. Four days after his confirmation, Interior’s Inspector General placed Bernhardt under investigation for potential conflicts of interest. Not long after, six of his top political appointees were also placed under investigation for potential ethical misconduct.  

Daniel Jorjani, the nominee to be Interior’s Solicitor General and a Koch Brothers alum, currently serves Interior as the Acting Solicitor. His nomination is stalled due to allegations of lying to Congress during his confirmation hearing. His past is riddled with conflicts of interest and ethical missteps. Notably, he once told a staff member that the job of Interior was to protect the Secretary. Jorjani pushed the controversial Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) overhaul, which allowed political appointees to delay the release of public documents. The policy is under review for an investigation for potentially violating transparency standards and violating the law.

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