The ethics issues that plagued the Department of the Interior under former Secretary Ryan Zinke may have extended far beyond the former Secretary, according to a new complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center (CLC).
Several senior members of the Department of the Interior appear to have repeatedly violated revolving door ethics prohibitions by offering privileged access to former employers or lobbying clients. CLC’s complaint to Interior’s Inspector General requests an investigation into the behavior of these officials.
Upon entering public service, senior political appointees sign a binding ethics pledge where they agree to recuse from closed official meetings with former employers or lobbying clients. Yet as the complaint outlines, a clear pattern has emerged where Interior officials are routinely disregarding these ethical obligations—raising questions about whether these officials are working on behalf of the American people, or on behalf of the interests that used to pay their salary.
The complaint names Senior Deputy Director for Intergovernmental and External Affairs Benjamin Cassidy, White House liaison Lori Mashburn, Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs Doug Domenech, and Deputy Director of Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs Timothy Williams, among others:
- Cassidy, who lobbied for the National Rifle Association (NRA) for seven years before accepting his post at the Interior, held meetings with, and solicited comments from, NRA officials about Interior plans that impact the NRA’s interests.
- Mashburn, a former associate director for the Heritage Foundation (Heritage), attended closed Heritage events and private Heritage fundraising lunches in her capacity as an Interior employee. One of these events was described as “an exclusive briefing for members who support Heritage with gifts of $10,000+ annually or legacy commitments of $200,000+.”
- Domenech, former Director for the Fueling Freedom Project at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), met privately with his former employer to discuss TPPF’s ongoing litigation against his agency. Six months later, Interior settled the lawsuit, with TPPF calling the settlement “a major win.”
- Williams, who previously worked for the Koch brothers’ advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (AFP), not only failed to disclose his prior role with AFP but also set up a meeting with an AFP official shortly after entering public service.
As CLC ethics counsel Delaney Marsco told The Intercept:
“This is a big deal. It not only reveals a pattern of indifference toward ethics at Interior’s highest levels, but it also calls into question the true motives of our public servants tasked with the immense responsibility of managing the country’s natural resources.”
As the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has explained, the revolving door provisions of the ethics pledge are designed “to address concerns that former employers and clients may appear to have privileged access, which they may exploit to influence an appointee out of the public view.” Yet top Interior officials appear to have ignored these requirements, and to have allowed former employers and clients to do just that.
With Zinke’s successor, David Bernhardt, currently under fire for his own ethical conflicts, it is critical that the troubling pattern of ethical noncompliance at Interior be investigated promptly as CLC’s complaint requests.