Bernhardt referred complaint over IG staff for outside probe

By Kevin Bogardus, Michael Doyle | 05/09/2019 01:03 PM EDT

Interior Department headquarters in Washington.

Interior Department headquarters in Washington. Pamela King/E&E News

The tables were turned on the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General last year when a complaint about the watchdog’s actions prompted then-Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt to refer the matter for outside investigation.

The "allegations of wrongdoing" by OIG "employees" were examined but found not to meet the "threshold for further consideration," Scott Dahl, the Labor Department inspector general and chairman of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s Integrity Committee, wrote on March 16 last year. His panel closed the matter.

"Since the complaint contains allegations against DOI OIG employees, the IC is referring this matter to your office for any action deemed appropriate," Dahl wrote to Interior Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, who was leading the office on an acting basis.

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The records obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act are heavily redacted and do not show the identity of the unhappy complainant or the nature of his or her complaint. Twenty-five pages of records were withheld in their entirety to protect personal privacy, the Interior IG’s deliberative process and the identity of a confidential source.

The documents do, however, briefly underscore the sometimes fraught relationships between department officials and internal watchdogs, a dynamic not unique to Interior.

The letter of complaint arrived in then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s office on Jan. 9 last year. At the time, Bernhardt was deputy secretary.

Nine days later, on Jan. 18, Bernhardt forwarded the letter of complaint and its accompanying documents to Dahl at the CIGIE Integrity Committee. That panel is composed of four inspectors general and executives from the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics. It probes complaints against IGs across the federal government.

"I am referring [redacted] allegations to you for appropriate review and action," Bernhardt wrote.

An Interior spokeswoman declined to comment.

Included in the records was correspondence with the letterhead of Tully Rinckey PLLC. The law firm also declined to comment, saying discussing the case would violate attorney-client privilege.

"We do not comment on personnel matters," Interior IG spokeswoman Nancy DiPaolo said.

The referral came amid a spike in the Integrity Committee’s workload. It opened 39 cases in fiscal 2017 and 63 cases in fiscal 2018, according to its latest annual report.

But many of those reviews didn’t amount to much. In fiscal 2018, the committee closed 47 cases with no referral for further investigation.

The Integrity Committee also reported receiving about 385 "incoming communications" during fiscal 2018, which were boiled down to the smaller number of cases.

Earl Devaney, a former Interior inspector general, said it was common for the department watchdog and its staff to be subject to complaints sent to the Integrity Committee.

"I had complaints against me," Devaney said, explaining that maybe "somebody didn’t like me. I gave them a bad performance appraisal. I didn’t smile."

Kendall herself, who served as Devaney’s deputy and has led the Interior IG office on an acting basis since 2009, faced such a complaint in the past and was cleared by the committee.

In 2012, three Republican senators had requested an investigation into whether she misrepresented scientists’ views regarding the Obama administration’s drilling moratorium after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. An investigation did not substantiate those charges (Greenwire, June 12, 2015).

Devaney said Bernhardt, who is now Interior secretary after Zinke resigned earlier this year battling ethics allegations, was correct to refer the complaint to the oversight panel because the inspector general is an independent entity not under his control. The veteran former IG noted, however, that those referrals don’t typically come from Cabinet offices.

"It would be routine for any secretary’s office, when they receive a complaint about someone in the inspector general’s office, to forward them on to the Integrity Committee. It is not necessarily routine for the Integrity Committee to receive complaints from a secretary’s office. The majority of them come from elsewhere," Devaney said.

Bernhardt also has welcomed complaints from staff about Interior’s management. In a September 2017 departmentwide message, the then-deputy secretary said "leadership is listening" to employees’ concerns about alleged misconduct (Greenwire, Sept. 25, 2017).

Want a friend? ‘Get a dog’

Bernhardt’s referral concerning IG staff is another wrinkle in a sometimes uneasy relationship between the Interior secretary’s office and the department’s internal watchdog under the Trump administration.

Months after the then-deputy secretary forwarded on allegations of wrongdoing by her staff, Kendall was seemingly about to be replaced as head of the watchdog office.

In October last year, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told staff in an email that a HUD political appointee, attorney Suzanne Israel Tufts, would become Interior’s acting IG. Interior would later say Carson was mistaken and Israel Tufts was not offered the job (Greenwire, Oct. 18, 2018).

In addition, Kendall has initiated several probes into Interior’s political appointees, including Zinke and now Bernhardt.

Some of her findings have embarrassed top officials, like Zinke’s use of a security detail while on vacation in Turkey and Greece. Investigations are still ongoing into alleged real estate dealings between Zinke and then-Halliburton Co. Chairman David Lesar for developing land in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont., as well as Zinke’s move to block a Native American tribe from expanding its Connecticut casino.

Bernhardt, too, has fallen under the IG’s scrutiny. Last month, prompted by complaints, Kendall said Interior’s watchdog office had begun investigating allegations that Bernhardt violated ethics rules as deputy secretary.

Kendall is set to retire from the Interior IG office this month to become Amtrak’s deputy IG (Greenwire, April 17). President Trump has nominated her replacement, Mark Lee Greenblatt, an assistant Commerce Department IG, who underwent his Senate confirmation hearing last week.

Tensions come with this territory, Devaney noted.

"If you want to be an IG in Washington, forget friends, get a dog," Devaney said. "You are going to make some people mad sometimes."

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