Senators questioned two senior Interior Department nominees Thursday about their ability to fairly and independently do their work while the Interior secretary and several top officials are under investigation for potential ethics violations.
Daniel Jorjani, a former Koch adviser, would oversee legal, ethical, and public records decisions as solicitor. Mark Greenblatt would be responsible for probing these decisions as inspector general, head of the department’s internal watchdog.
These are among “the most important” roles at the Interior Department due to their oversight responsibilities, said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), ranking member on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, adding they must both be willing “to speak truth to power.”
The nominees, however, have come under scrutiny regarding concerns about Jorjani’s potential conflicts of interest along with questions about both Jorjani and Greenblatt’s ability to hold officials to account.
As inspector general, Greenblatt — an attorney who previously worked at the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) — would be responsible for investigating allegations of ethics violations by Secretary David Bernhardt, including allegations that he failed to disclose controversial meetings on his public calendar.
There are also six other senior officials who are under investigation for potentially violating their ethics pledges due to interactions with former employers and clients.
In response to a question by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) regarding yet another scandal — the reported suppression of documents related to a Fish and Wildlife Service study on the impact of pesticides on endangered species — Greenblatt said, “I have zero intent of walking in the door and shutting down that investigation or any matter in front of the OIG.”
Testifying alongside Greenblatt on Thursday was Jorjani, a man who will likely be among those investigated by Greenblatt due to his role as acting solicitor since May 2017.
“The grotesque scandals at the Interior Department, in effect, are going to be part of an especially bizarre twist this morning,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said as he began his questioning. “Jorjani believes he deserves an ethics promotion,” yet his work coincided with “a blizzard of ethical lapses by [former Secretary] Mr. Ryan Zinke.”
“Next to him is Greenblatt,” who is nominated to “a job charged with being a key line of defense against corruption,” Wyden continued.
Prior to his time at the Interior Department, Jorjani worked as a former adviser to Charles Koch as well as general counsel at Freedom Partners, a nonprofit funded by Charles and his brother David. The billionaire petrochemical brothers are well-known for funding climate science denial.
But as Hirono noted, the biography submitted by Jorjani to the committee failed to mention his years working for the Kochs. “It’s hard to imagine this did not impact your opinions [issued in favor of oil and gas at Interior],” she argued.
In his current role, Jorjani is facing a number of legal challenges, including his opinion issued in favor of narrowing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to remove an Obama-era interpretation that allowed federal officials to prosecute energy companies that accidentally kill birds in the course of their business activities.
He also approved the release of mineral leases to a company planning a copper-nickel mine near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Both of these decisions were seen as victories for extractive industries.
Thursday’s hearing also provided an opportunity to question Jorjani about his work under the scandal-ridden former secretary, Ryan Zinke.
Jorjani boasted about having “successfully protected” Interior political appointees from facing investigations, according to a March 2017 email to colleagues, telling them it was their job to do the same for Zinke. “At the end of the day our job is to protect the Secretary,” he wrote.
In response to multiple questions on Thursday about this email, Jorjani claimed that he was speaking about protecting the secretary from the misuse of taxpayer money “and poor judgement” by another Interior official.
But Wyden countered that, instead, the responsibility should be “protecting the best interest of the American people before those of the secretary or special interests.”
Jorjani came under further scrutiny during the hearing for his role in overseeing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Right before stepping down, Zinke quietly issued a secretarial order giving Jorjani authority to oversee all FOIA requests at the department. A surge in requests, along with increased litigation and subsequent delays, were reasons given for the change. Jorjani would continue overseeing FOIA requests in the new role if confirmed.
Critics, however, have expressed concern that putting a political appointee in charge of public records requests gives the Trump administration greater power to withhold information from the public.
Given all of these issues, Wyden pressed Greenblatt on what specific steps he would take to “maintain your independence” while “someone like Mr. Jorjani is attempting to interfere with your work?”
“I have no problem making referrals over to the Department of Justice… I’ll have DOJ on speed dial if I need to,” Greenblatt replied, asserting he’d “follow the evidence wherever it goes.”
The committee must vote on both nominations before they advance to the Senate floor, where they will likely be confirmed by the Republican-controlled chamber.