In response to a Campaign Legal Center complaint, the Interior Department Inspector General concluded this week that a top official violated federal ethics rules when he took meetings with his former employer.
That employee was Doug Domenech, Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Insular and International Affairs. Prior to joining government, Domenech was the Director for the Fueling Freedom Project at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), a think tank and advocacy group.
After he joined government, he met privately with his former employer to discuss TPPF’s ongoing litigation against his agency, encouraging TPPF in a subsequent email to “keep fighting.” Six months later, Interior settled one of the lawsuits, with TPPF calling the settlement “a major win.”
To preserve the public’s trust in government, public officials have a duty to act impartially and avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
The impartiality rule, a federal ethics regulation, gives these duties teeth: it requires public officials to consider whether their participation in certain matters would raise questions about the official’s impartiality, particularly when it comes to a recent employer.
If their participation might cause a reasonable person to question whether the official can act impartially, they must seek approval from an ethics official to participate.
In coordinating, scheduling, and attending the meetings with his former employer, Domenech failed to consider whether his conduct would raise questions about impartiality—despite the obvious red flags that come with granting privileged access to a recent prior employer who has pending litigation against the agency.
Domenech’s failure to adhere to the impartiality rule matters because the rule is one of few safeguards the public has to ensure government officials are acting in the public’s interest, and not in the interests of people who used to pay their salaries.
If Interior officials believe they can violate these important safeguards without repercussions, it will have a detrimental effect on the public’s trust in government.
Sadly, Domenech’s violation of the impartiality rule is part of a larger pattern at Interior: several senior members of Interior appear to have repeatedly violated revolving door ethics prohibitions by offering privileged access to former employers or lobbying clients.
Secretary Bernhardt himself seems to have violated ethics rules designed to prevent public officials from continuing to do their former employer’s bidding after entering government.
The Inspector General is still investigating CLC complaints against Secretary Bernhardt and five other senior political appointees at Interior.