Records reveal Interior official met with former employer, a Koch-funded group suing the department

Interior official's meetings with former employer on cases against agency raise ethics issues.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee on May 10, 2018. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Subcommittee on May 10, 2018. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A top Interior Department official held meetings last year with staffers at a far-right group where he previously worked, even though the Koch-funded organization was involved in legal actions against the department at the time, the Guardian reported Monday.

Douglas Domenech, while serving as a senior adviser to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, met twice in April 2017 with officials from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), according to the news article. The TPPF is a research and advocacy group whose influence has grown over the past year as the Trump administration works with the organization on the president’s anti-regulatory agenda.

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Domenech’s meetings with his former employer about matters pending before his agency raise major ethics issues for yet another high-level Trump appointee. Zinke, Domenech’s boss, has faced criticism for his own questionable activities, including his use of a major political donor’s private plane.

The TPPF’s ties with the Trump administration grew even tighter earlier this year when its president and CEO, Brooke Rollins, left the advocacy group to take a job in the White House Office of American Innovation, led by Jared Kushner, President  Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The Austin, Texas-based group is heavily funded by major fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Devon Energy, and Koch Industries.

The TPPF also is home to Kathleen Hartnett White, one of the few Trump nominees who was forced to withdraw her nomination. Harnett White, who was picked to be head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, proved to be an embarrassment to the administration given her fringe anti-science beliefs and her widely panned performance at her confirmation hearing last fall.

Prior to being named to the Trump administration, Domenech was the chair of the TPPF’s Fueling Freedom Project. The project’s goals include explaining “the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels” and ending the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide.

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He also led Trump’s Interior Department transition team. After serving as an adviser to Zinke for several months, Domenech was confirmed by the Senate last September to serve as assistant secretary of Interior for insular and international affairs.

Domenech’s meetings with the TPPF appeared to have produced positive results for the group’s agenda. About six months after one of his meetings with TPPF officials, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) settled a contentious lawsuit with the group. The TPPF described the settlement with the bureau as a “major win for private property rights.”

Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, a government watchdog group, said Domenech’s meetings with his former employer are “textbook examples of what the ethics rules are designed to prohibit.”

A government official who meets with a former employer about matters pending before his or her agency “undermines the public’s faith in government,” Evers said Monday in an interview with ThinkProgress. Prior to founding American Oversight in 2017, Evers served as senior counsel in the Obama administration’s Department of State for oversight and transparency matters.

“When it comes to any outcome on these cases, they are tainted because we can’t trust they were adjudicated on the merits,” he explained.

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The Interior Department had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.

According to the Guardian, Domenech met with the TPPF to discuss a legal battle known as the Red River case. The dispute concerned property and mineral rights along the Red River, which serves as the border between Texas and Oklahoma.

In 2014, the BLM announced it would implement new surveys allowing the federal government to claim ownership of a 116-mile stretch of the Red River running through Texas counties Clay, Wichita, and Wilbarger. The BLM said the land is public, citing a 1923 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court that assigned land in between the state boundary to the federal government.

But the BLM shifted gears after Trump became president, backing away from any claims to the land.

“The judge’s ruling approving the settlement agreement concludes a dispute which began in 2009 when BLM placed federal survey markers within Texas claiming private property along a 116-mile stretch of the Red River as federal lands,” the TPPF said in a statement issued on November 8, 2018 about its legal victory, which occurred in the wake of the meetings with Domenech.

In another case, Domenech and his colleagues at the Interior Department met with a TPPF lawyer about a legal case involving the bone cave harvestman, a type of spider that has been listed as an endangered species since 1988. Property owners who want to be able to develop the land in Texas where the endangered spider lives believe its protected status should be removed.

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Since at least 2015, the Guardian noted, the TPPF has been engaged in a lawsuit against the Interior Department to get the spider removed from the endangered species list. The legal case is still pending.

Domenech, who worked as an industry lobbyist earlier in his career, also is coming under scrutiny for purchasing between $15,001 and $50,000 worth of shares in Compass Minerals, a mining company that does business with the department.

As assistant secretary for insular areas, Domenech coordinates federal policy for the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The office also is responsible for administering and overseeing grant assistance to the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau.

Compass Minerals produces salt, potash, and fertilizers. Along with the Interior Department, the company has won contracts with the departments of Defense, Transportation, and Veterans Affairs over the past seven years. Domenech was confirmed to his position at the Interior Department on September 18, 2017 and reportedly purchased the shares in Compass Minerals in late October 2017.

Along with Zinke and Domenech, an ethics cloud hovers over Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former industry lobbyist. In his current job, Bernhardt met with lobbyists in late 2017 who were working on behalf of a MGM Resorts, which is hoping the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs rules in its favor.

The lobbyists with whom Bernhardt met in late 2017 — Sylvester Lukis and Dan McFaul — hail from Ballard Partners. Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Schreck, also counts MGM Resorts as one of its clients.

“When you start with a president who entered office refusing to divest from his personal business empire, it may not be surprising to people that individuals who work for the president are also infected with similar conflicts of interest,” Evers said. “The president and his cabinet secretaries have not made ethics a priority. As a result, you see both petty and gross corruption across the government in a way that I don’t think has any precedent.”