Earlier this week, a press release from Trump’s Department of the Interior (DOI) hit reporters’ inboxes boasting about a new Office of Government Ethics (OGE) report supposedly “validating Interior’s unprecedented ethics initiatives, where the Office of Government Ethics Program Review contained ZERO findings or recommendations.”
Given the Trump administration’s constant drip of scandals, active investigations, and widely known conflicts of interest, the findings don’t say anything close to what the Trump administration wants you to believe. This is far from a clean bill of health. This report didn’t look at whether ethics at the Trump administration are tip-top (they’re not) or whether corporate favoritism has taken over DOI (it has). It just looked at whether DOI’s ethics program is following required procedures, such as timely financial disclosures and employee training. It didn’t look at whether those practices prevented ethics violations by political appointees seemingly determined to do things they’re not supposed to do.
For a sense of how ridiculous DOI’s press release really was, let’s look at this new report in light of the ethical problems we already know about. Former Secretary Ryan Zinke’s track record alone — he left office having been referred to the Department of Justice — could make this an impressively long post, but we’ll stick to transgressions under Secretary David Bernhardt for now.
As we noted, the only thing this new OGE report really examined was whether standard procedures were in place — not whether Trump’s culture of corruption is overwhelming those procedures. (Spoiler alert: his appointees have enormous financial conflicts of interest with the people they regulate, and routinely do favors for polluters at public expense.)
One key recommendation from a previous 2016 OGE report, according to DOI’s press release, was to make sure all covered employees got annual ethics training. Well, as the New York Times reported in May, senior DOI official Doug Domenech had previously taken training on the very rules he broke — on two separate occasions, involving two separate ethics issues. After getting caught a second time, Domenech’s punishment was — you guessed it — more ethics training. It’s a good reminder that training doesn’t stop a culture of corruption all by itself.
Here’s a few more examples of deeply unethical conduct that OGE reports of this kind don’t look into. The history of Trump’s #CultureOfCorruption goes back years and isn’t washed away by one report.
- Department of Interior political appointee Steve Wackowski will do whatever it takes to sell the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drillers, including breaking the law.
- Interior Solicitor Daniel Jorjani perjured himself before lawmakers and orchestrated a cover-up to protect Secretary Bernhardt during his confirmation as Secretary of the Interior.
- Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney violated ethics rules when deciding how to distribute funds from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to Native American tribes. The damage to Indian Country is irreversible.
- The mishandling of research from government entities has forced many federal employees to quit rather than agree to undermine their environmental work.
- DOI energy counselor Vincent DeVito left Interior to join Cox Oil Offshore LLC as executive vice president and general counsel. Deputy chief of staff Downey Magallanes left to work on BP’s government affairs team. Joe Balash, the assistant secretary who oversaw the Bureau of Land Management, left to be senior vice president for external affairs with Oil Search.
- Interior Secretary Bernhardt held a meeting behind closed doors with real estate developers about Villages at Vigneto, a proposed property development in the Arizona desert that would have disturbed endangered species habitats, and then pressured researchers to side with industries over the environment. About the same time, Vigneto’s owner made a curiously timed $10,000 donation to President Trump.
- Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s manipulated calendars, or the lying about the calendars, have not stopped. Here’s why that matters.
- Interior Secretary Bernhardt blocked a report that outlines how bad pesticides are for endangered species.
- The U.S. Park Police, part of DOI, led a brutal attack against peaceful #BlackLivesMatter protesters in Lafayette Square near the White House, then mischaracterized the reason for the action and denied what was clearly excessive use of force.
If DOI has any further explanation for any of these, or any of the other scandals — many of them ongoing — we haven’t heard it.
The new OGE report looked mostly at DOI’s ethics program processes, not whether they were effective in preventing ethical transgressions. You can create as much bureaucratic infrastructure to prevent abuse as you like — but if there’s a culture of corruption starting with the president and flowing through the Secretary’s office, even the best procedures won’t stop certain people from doing what they’ve always done.