Interior inspector general investigating newly confirmed Secretary David Bernhardt for ethics violations

PHOTO: Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt heads up to speak during the annual state of Colorado energy luncheon sponsored by the Colorado Petroleum council in Denver, July 26, 2018.PlayDavid Zalubowski/AP, FILE
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The Interior inspector general says her office has opened an investigation to look into multiple complaints about newly confirmed Secretary David Bernhardt and possible ethical violations since he joined the agency.

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In a letter, released by senators who submitted complaints, Inspector General Mary Kendall says they have received seven complaints "from a wide assortment of complainants alleging various potential conflict of interest violations by then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt."

"We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them."

Bernhardt was confirmed as Interior Secretary last week in a 56-41 vote.

While the inspector general references seven separate complaints a spokeswoman from her office says many of the complaints from senators and advocacy groups referenced the same reports about Bernhardt or general concerns he violated ethics guidelines.

The New York Times has reported that Bernhardt got personally involved in a decision involving water management in California that would benefit a former client and reported interference with a report about the risk of pesticides on endangered species.

The Interior Department said in a statement that the department's ethics office has already cleared Bernhardt of wrongdoing in many of the accusations against him and that he is "in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations"

"Secretary Bernhardt is hopeful the Inspector General will expeditiously complete a review of the facts associated with the questions raised by Democratic Members of Congress and DC political organizations," spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in a statement.

Bernhardt has faced criticism about his previous work as a lobbyist and critics of the Trump administration leadership at Interior say many officials at the department are too close to the industries they regulate. But Interior says they have taken multiple steps to improve ethics at the department, including hiring more ethics lawyers and providing more information to employees about creating an ethical culture.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, pressed Bernhardt in his confirmation hearing and accused him of lying about the pesticide report. He called for the confirmation vote to be delayed to give Congress more time to look into the allegations. Other members of Congress and advocacy groups have accused Bernhardt of failing to disclose lobbying or making decisions at the department that benefit former clients.

Chairman Raul Grijalva on the house committee with oversight of Interior wants Bernhardt to testify on the ethics concerns by May 15.