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Four Ways for Democrats to Root out Republican Corruption

Tuesday’s elections brought a major shift to the U.S. House, and handed Democrats the opportunity to investigate the rampant corruption of the Trump Administration

They should start with the Department of Interior and its Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is facing no less than 17 federal investigations. (Photo: FOE)

They should start with the Department of Interior and its Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is facing no less than 17 federal investigations. (Photo: FOE)

The blue wave that crashed onto the Republican Party tonight now gives us the power to resist the corruption of the Trump administration.

Democrats in the House must hold administration officials accountable for their unethical and illegal actions. They should start with the Department of Interior and its Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is facing no less than 17 federal investigations. Zinke even tried to fire the DOI’s own inspector general to take the heat off himself after she referred one of the investigations to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution. The House Natural Resources Committee should convene hearings to investigate the actions of Secretary Zinke and other top officials at DOI.

Here are four obvious places to start:

Abuse of Power for Financial and Corporate Gain

DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke and his top officials, including Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, regularly use their positions to benefit themselves and their industry friends at taxpayers’ expense. We must learn who is benefitting from DOI’s corporate giveaways.

  • The relationship between Zinke and Halliburton Chairman David Lesar should be examined. Halliburton will directly benefit from DOI’s rollback of the oil well blowout safety regulations put in place after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the proposal to open 90 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling and other industry giveaways. Zinke’s foundation entered into a land deal with Lesar from which Zinke will personally profit. Recent emails reveal that Zinke continued to engage in discussions around the land deal, despite promising to recuse himself from the issue for a year.
  • Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt’s former clients, from his time as a high-paid industry lawyer and lobbyist, began receiving favorable treatment after his confirmation, despite Bernhardt signing ethics pledges not to involve himself in issues related to his previous work. DOI is now facing litigation from Friends of the Earth, Western Values Project and others for failing to release Bernhardt’s ethics documents.
  • Zinke misused taxpayer money to pay for travel for his wife and political donors, and to take his wife on vacation in Turkey. Zinke also hired a high school friend for a position at DOI that he was unqualified for.
  • Zinke and top DOI officials have used departmental actions and resources to boost GOP electoral candidates. This includes suggesting that Florida would be exempt from offshore drilling after a staged meeting with Senate hopeful Rick Scott, attending a GOP fundraiser in the Virgin Islands while on work travel and announcing a grant to Pennsylvania during a special election.
  • Trump and Zinke rolled back the coal valuation rule, which closed loopholes that allowed coal companies to cheat taxpayers out of royalties for coal mined on public lands.

Ignoring the public to destroy our public lands

The Secretary of the Interior and senior officials are supposed to be stewards of our public lands and waters. Instead, they are giving them away to their buddies in the fossil fuel industry — and endangering the health and safety of Americans in the process. The public is outraged about this, and DOI is trying to silence our voices.

  • Unredacted documents show that DOI ignored the economic and archeological benefit of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, the voices of tribes on whose ancestral land monuments sit and undercounted public comments in support of the monuments — all to justify opening them to extractive industries.
  • DOI and the Bureau of Land Management attacked our bedrock environmental law, the National Environmental Protection Act, which ensures proposals have adequate review and that the public has a voice in decisions about projects in their communities. Instead, DOI shortened public comment periods and made them optional instead of mandatory.
  • DOI is pushing to open over 90 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf to drilling despite overwhelming opposition from coastal communities and governors.
  • DOI is rushing to hand the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge over to the oil industry, putting this important habitat for polar bears, caribou and rare migratory birds at risk, and threatening the indigenous Gwich’in people who have relied on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for thousands of years.
 
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Caribou in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Cover-ups and Secret Meetings:

Evidence suggests that senior officials at DOI have attempted to obscure or cover up controversial actions by altering records, failing to document their actions, refusing to cooperate with investigations and otherwise failing to meet their legally required transparency obligations.

  • Zinke’s calendars were stripped of most details, including meetings with corporate executives that had matters before DOI. This is a scandal on its own, but it also raises the possibility that DOI is keeping a second, secret set of calendars. Calendars for other top officials, including Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, also do not include meeting descriptions, suggesting Zinke is not alone in his actions. Friends of the Earth filed litigation after DOI failed to release the full calendars with the meeting descriptions.
  • Top DOI officials have repeatedly failed to document their actions in what appears to be a concerted effort to avoid leaving a paper trail. This includes failing to document the rationale behind senior staff reassignments that disproportionately targeted climate scientists and Native Americans.
  • Under the Freedom of Information Act, the public has a right to request documents about how our government conducts business. But DOI is leaving their FOIA office critically understaffed and failing to provide documents in a timely manner. As a result, the public has been forced to file lawsuits to get information from DOI. FOIA litigation against DOI was up 62 percent in 2017.

Treatment of Native people

The U.S. government has a long history of mistreating indigenous people. DOI under Trump and Zinke continues and expands this shameful legacy.

  • DOI ignored the elected governments of the five tribes on whose ancestral land the Bears Ears National Monument sits. These five tribes opposed Zinke’s decision to gut the monument and open huge portions of it to extraction. DOI then restricted tribal input under the new management plan.
  • Zinke reportedly told several DOI employees that he doesn’t “care about diversity.” In addition, DOI reassignments of senior career civil servants disproportionately targeted Native Americans.
  • DOI was sued by Connecticut tribes for stopping two proposed casinos after lobbying from MGM, a former client of Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt’s firm.
  • The Mashpee tribe has filed a complaint against DOI for taking their land out of trust, which means they could lose their reservation.

Tuesday’s elections brought a major shift to the U.S. House, and handed Democrats the opportunity to investigate the rampant corruption of the Trump Administration. The Democrats must investigate the unethical and illegal actions of Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt, and expose the corruption at the Department of Interior.

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Nicole Ghio

Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels program manager at Friends of the Earth

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