Watchdog: Interior official’s meetings broke ethics rule

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WASHINGTON (AP) —

An assistant Interior secretary broke federal ethics rules by twice meeting with his old employer, a conservative Texas-based policy group, to discuss legal tussles between the group and the agency, Interior’s watchdog office said Tuesday.

Douglas Domenech, the agency’s assistant secretary for insular and international affairs, convened the first of the two meetings in April 2017, three months after leaving his old job and beginning at the agency, the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office found in a new report.

That violated federal ethics rules that restricted Domenech in dealing with his former employer for two years after taking the government job, the inspector general’s office concluded.

The federal rules are meant to limit revolving-door appointments in which former industry and interest group representatives move in and out of the government bodies that oversee them. President Donald Trump’s administration has appointed several former industry lobbyists and lawyers to top positions at agencies, including Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who had to recuse himself from agency actions involving a long list of former clients.

Domenech’s two meetings covered legal action by the Texas conservative group against the Interior Department’s designation of a certain Texas spider as endangered, and in a dispute over land near the Red River, investigators said.

Domenech told the watchdog agency he had misunderstood his ethics training and thought the two-year recusal period applied only to matters and cases he had worked on directly at his old employer.

Violations of federal ethics rules carry few mandatory punishments, in general. In a statement, the Interior Department noted that Domenech himself had notified ethics officials last year when he realized the meetings may have been improper.

He “has subsequently received additional guidance and ethics training. The Department considers this matter resolved,” the statement said.

In a separate probe, the office of Interior Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt cleared Bernhardt, the agency’s head, of abusing his authority or violating ethics rules in directing Fish and Wildlife Service employees to change how their methodology for studying the effect of a pesticide on endangered species.

Investigators found no evidence “that his actions influenced or altered the findings of career FWS scientists,” they reported.

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