U.S. Interior chief Bernhardt under inspector general probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Interior Department’s inspector general office has opened a probe into recently-confirmed Secretary David Bernhardt on several allegations, including conflict of interest, it said in a letter to lawmakers on Monday.

FILE PHOTO: Former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt testifies before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on his nomination of to be Interior secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

Mary Kendall, the Interior Department’s deputy inspector general, told Senator Ron Wyden in a letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, that it received seven complaints from a “wide assortment of complainants alleging various potential conflict of interest and other violations when he was deputy secretary of the department.”

Kendall said her office had opened an investigation and was continuing to gather information about the complaints. She did not detail the other complaints against Bernhardt, a Republican.

Wyden and Senator Mazie Hirono, both Democrats, had urged the inspector general in separate requests to investigate allegations that Bernhardt had inappropriately blocked a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assessment of the effect of pesticides on several endangered species. The service is an office of the Interior Department.

Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist, was confirmed by the Senate last week in a 56 to 41 vote. He replaced Ryan Zinke who resigned under a cloud of ethics investigations.

Wyden, who had pushed for a delay in Bernhardt’s confirmation vote, had also asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether Bernhardt was in violation of lobbying disclosure laws.

“We now have an Interior Secretary who has been on the job for one full business day and is already under investigation,” Wyden said. “With Bernhardt’s track record and the number of allegations against him, it’s no surprise. At least now, the American people will finally get the answers they deserve.”

Bernhardt’s critics, including environmental groups, have said his previous work as a lobbyist could risk conflicts of interest, unless he recuses himself from certain issues, because he worked for companies that could benefit by opening up lands to development.

The Interior Department, which employs more than 70,000 people and oversees more than 20 percent of the U.S. land surface, has been central to President Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” policy of boosting energy production.

Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Bernhardt “is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.”

Vander Voort also said that the ethics office at the department had already reviewed many of the accusations at Bernhardt’s request and determined that he was in compliance with his ethics agreement and all laws.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Bill Berkrot