May 03, 2019

Senate Democrats Grill Interior Nominee On Ethics Allegations | Bloomberg

Senate Democrats on May 2 grilled Interior Department official Daniel Jorjani, President Donald Trump’s nominee to become Interior’s top lawyer, for actions they deemed unethical or heavily tilted in favor of big business.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said he was troubled that seven of the eight legal opinions rendered under Jorjani’s watch as principal deputy solicitor have overturned long-standing, well-reasoned legal opinions. 

Manchin cited a 2017 opinion reversing an earlier decision to let railroad companies lease their rights-of-way on public lands to other companies for non-railroad purposes. He also pointed to a second 2017 opinion that would sweep away possible criminal prosecutions for harming species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Politics Over Principle?

“The observance that I have is that, basically, your political ideology overtook basically the rule of law that was in the previous opinions,” Manchin said.

On the Migratory Bird Treaty Act issue, Jorjani said a federal appeals court split on the incidental harming of migratory birds left open the question. Jorjani also said President Donald Trump’s chief of staff had told the solicitor’s office to “take a fresh set of eyes on every reg and any interpretations of statutes with general applicability.”

That didn’t satisfy Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who said the Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have a “70-year history of supporting the opposite view and protecting the resource.”

Later in the hearing, Democrats tried to pin Jorjani down on a March 2017 email he sent to another Interior official in which wrote that, “at the end of the day, it’s our job to protect the secretary.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said that language suggests that Jorjani prioritizes the administration’s interests ahead of the American public’s.

“The way Interior has acted under the Trump admin is the textbook definition of a political cartel, using state resources to help the special interests,” Wyden said. “It sure looks to me like Mr. Jorjani has been a key member of the cartel.”

Jorjani said the 2017 email was sent while he was on duty as a special assistant to then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. He said he was “politely reprimanding” a mid-level political appointee for a trip that he considered a poor use of taxpayer dollars, and that in his role, he was responsible for defending the secretary against the “poor judgment of other political appointees.”

Ethics Reforms

Jorjani also said “massive” ethics reforms are underway at Interior. The department recently hired 42 career ethics officials, is on schedule to hire another 25 by the end of fiscal year, and is providing new ethics training, Jorjani said.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) noted that Jorjani once worked for the Freedom Partners chamber of commerce, a business lobbying group with ties to Koch Industries Inc.

“It is hard to believe that your time with the Koch brothers did not influence your opinions,” Hirono said.

Jorjani replied that he wasn’t aware of any particular industries that have benefited from the solicitor’s office’s opinions under his tenure.

IG Nominee Mostly Unscathed

The committee May 2 confirmation hearing on acting Interior solicitor Jorjani to become solicitor also included a second nominee: assistant inspector general Mark Lee Greenblatt to become Interior’s inspector general. 

But by comparison, Greenblatt largely avoided tough questioning.

Greenblatt said he shared Manchin’s concern that hardrock mining companies don’t have to pay royalties to the federal government. The issue topped a list of management challenges as identified by current inspector general staff, Greenblatt said.

He also said the inspector general’s office should develop a “more robust practice” in the area of tribal sovereignty, and that the current team working on that issue wants to expand its ranks.


By:  Stephen Lee