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Interior watchdog: Senior official misused post to aid family

IG’s report comes after Trump’s firing or demotion of five other agencies’ watchdogs in recent weeks

The Interior Department has been under ethical clouds since the tenure of Ryan Zinke, the former secretary, and its current head, David Bernhardt.
The Interior Department has been under ethical clouds since the tenure of Ryan Zinke, the former secretary, and its current head, David Bernhardt. (Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images file photo)

A senior Interior Department official used his position to get a family member a job at the EPA, a violation of federal ethics rules and an abuse of office, the department’s inspector general said in a report released Friday.

The investigation found Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Douglas Domenech contacted an EPA official in person and via email in 2017 on behalf of a family member pursuing a job at the agency. Domenech also promoted a different family member’s wedding business to the same EPA official, according to investigators.

Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin said in an email the contacts occurred before the department stepped up its ethical compliance training. He did not dispute the IG’s findings.

“The underlying events regarding Mr. Domenech occurred in 2017,” he wrote, “before the Department initiated an unprecedented effort to invest in building a culture of ethical compliance and dramatically expanding the Department of the Interior’s Ethics Office Program, which has resulted in tripling the number of career ethics officials within the Department.”

In a separate inquiry in December, the DOI inspector general said Domenech, an alumnus of the George W. Bush administration, broke ethics rules by meeting with a former employer. At the time, Domenech said he had misunderstood his ethics briefings.

[Former EPA staff chief gets busy lobbying for mining industry]

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, demanded Interior Secretary David Bernhardt dismiss Domenech immediately. “Firing Mr. Domenech is the only serious course of action at this point – another round of ethics training is clearly just a waste of time, since it hasn’t sunk in by now,” Grijalva said in a statement.

Attacks on IGs

The Interior watchdog published its report a week after other government ombudsmen came under fire from President Donald Trump, who has taken to expelling inspectors general from the executive branch as the U.S. grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout.

Trump has fired or demoted five inspectors general in recent weeks, drawing condemnation from external watchdog groups and Democrats in Congress, as well as criticism from some Republicans, like Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.

Glenn Fine, who held the No. 2 position at the Pentagon’s IG office, resigned Tuesday. Colleagues had chosen him to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, created to scrutinize the roughly $2 trillion coronavirus relief package (PL 116-136) signed into law in March. 

Trump moved Fine into a different role at the Defense Department, making him ineligible to serve on the pandemic panel. 

Domenech communicated with the EPA senior official, who is unnamed in the IG report, “on several occasions” over hiring a family member in the fall of 2017. That person is also not named.

The IG report shows Domenech checked in with the official about the status of his family member’s application. 

One morning, Domenech wrote, “[Family member 1] has been called and understand is ‘in process’ but…has not heard anything more over the last week.” 

The EPA official promptly wrote back: ‘I’m on it. We do need [family member 1].’

Domenech then replied, “Thanks. Between you and me, [family member 1] is currently assisting a [prominent United States Senator] . . . But that is flexible.” 

He told the investigators he was referring to his family member in this conversation, the IG’s office said.

In a different instance at the Wolf Trap National Park in Virginia, Domenech broached to the EPA senior official, who was engaged at the time, that a different family member of his has a wedding business. 

Domenech later emailed that official using his government account a link to his family member’s business website.

While working at DOI, he organized and held meetings with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative advocacy group and his former employer. 

Ethics rules barred Domenech from participating in matters that related to TPPF for a year. But he met with the group twice in April 2017, just months after he resigned in January, placing those meetings too soon to abide by ethics guidelines.

Since Domenech joined Interior as an adviser to then-Secretary Ryan Zinke in 2017, he received at least two rounds of ethics training.

The training includes slides that warn government officials that they should not use their roles for private benefit. Included in the presentation is the following message: “You may not use, or allow the use of, your title, position or the authority associated with your position to endorse friends, relatives, or persons with whom you are affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”

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