(Bloomberg) -- The Interior Department’s inspector general has opened an investigation into Secretary David Bernhardt, the agency’s watchdog confirmed in letters to congressional Democrats and ethics groups that requested the probe.
Bernhardt, a former energy and natural resources lobbyist who was confirmed to lead the Interior Department last week, has been accused of using his position to help former clients of his firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP.
Government watchdog groups and lawmakers alleged that Bernhardt may have violated federal ethics rules by participating in matters he lobbied on in the two years before his appointment, specifically by participating in an evaluation of water diversion in California’s Central Valley. Bernhardt previously represented the Westlands Water District in California.
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, separately alleged Bernhardt had intervened to block the release of an agency analysis of the threat that two pesticides pose to endangered species.
“Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” said department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort. “It is important to note that the department ethics office has already conducted a review of many of these accusations at Mr. Bernhardt’s request."
The Interior Department’s IG received seven complaints regarding Bernhardt’s ethics, Mary L. Kendall, the deputy inspector general of the Interior Department, wrote in a letter Monday.
“We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them,” the letter said.
The Senate confirmed Bernhardt to be Interior secretary by a 56-41 vote last week, after Democrats unsuccessfully sought to stall the nomination over concerns about the mounting requests for government investigations into his behavior as acting secretary.
Bernhardt’s predecessor, Ryan Zinke, left his post in January amid several federal investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest.
--With assistance from Jennifer A. Dlouhy.
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