/Interior Dept. Official Who Oversees Agency’s Embattled Ethics Office Up For Promotion

Interior Dept. Official Who Oversees Agency’s Embattled Ethics Office Up For Promotion

Daniel Jorjani, a political appointee at the Interior Department who once told colleagues that “our job is to protect the Secretary” from ethics probes and bad press, will appear before a Senate committee Thursday to make his case for a promotion to be the agency’s top lawyer.

Jorjani is a former adviser for fossil fuel moguls Charles and David Koch and has served as Interior’s principal deputy solicitor since May 2017. The job includes managing the agency’s ethics office and, more recently, overseeing all public information requests sent to the agency. President Donald Trump officially tapped Jorjani for the solicitor post last month, which has been vacant since the Trump administration took office.  

The nominee’s appearance before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee comes shortly after Interior’s internal watchdog announced a pair of ethics investigations into multiple high-ranking agency officials. One of those probes targets newly confirmed secretary David Bernhardt, while the other is looking into allegations against six officials who maintained close ties to their former employers.

Jorjani will appear Thursday alongside Mark Lee Greenblatt, Trump’s nominee to serve as Interior Inspector General. Mary Kendall, the deputy inspector general who oversaw investigations into former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s conduct, is set to retire this month. If confirmed, Greenblatt, now the assistant inspector general for investigations at the Department of Commerce, would take over several ongoing probes.

The new Inspector General investigations will likely serve as new fodder for committee Democrats who have voiced concerns about ethical lapses by agency officials and voted against Bernhardt’s nomination last month, citing his long list of potential conflicts of interests stemming from his years as an oil and gas lobbyist. Thursday’s hearing will give lawmakers a rare opportunity to question the person who has overseen the agency’s ethics office since early in Zinke’s tenure, and would continue to do so if confirmed as solicitor. Zinke resigned in January under a cloud of ethics scandals.

As principal deputy solicitor, Jorjani proved himself a loyal gatekeeper of the former secretary. As HuffPost reported last May, he took six months to respond to investigators probing Zinke’s apparent effort to bully Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) into supporting Obamacare repeal last year, only to dodge their questions entirely. And in a March 2017 email to colleagues, Jorjani boasted that he had “successfully protected” Interior presidential appointments facing investigations and that their primary responsibility was to do the same for Zinke.

“At the end of the day our job is to protect the Secretary,” he wrote.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Jorjani held several positions at Interior under President George W. Bush. And prior to his current stint at the agency, Jorjani held senior positions at the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute and worked as general counsel at the Koch-supported Freedom Partners.

Jorjani also has been given broad power over public records requests. In December, Zinke signed a controversial order that put Jorjani in charge of the agency’s Freedom of Information Act program, stripping transparency authority from the agency’s chief information officer. Zinke pegged the change to “exponential increases in requests and litigation” and noted that records requests to the agency increased 30 percent between fiscal years 2016 and 2018. Less than a month later, Jorjani signed an order that appears aimed at making it harder for news organizations and the public to obtain government documents.

It is through such requests that reporters often obtain information about agency decisions and shine light on questionable activities by government officials. A bipartisan group of senators blasted the proposed rule change in a March letter to Bernhardt, writing that it “appears to restrict public access to DOI’s records and delay the processing of FOIA requests in violation of the letter and spirit of FOIA.”

As a top legal operative at the federal agency, Jorjani has also met extensively with industry lobbyists, trade groups and corporate executives, as Pacific Standard reported, and played a key role in rolling back several Obama-era regulations. In December, he authored an interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that protects energy companies and other parties from being prosecuted for unintentionally killing birds. That same month he renewed controversial leases for the Twin Metals copper and nickel mine in Minnesota following a lobbying blitz by the leaseholder, Chilean company Antofagasta, Plc.

Bernhardt applauded Trump for tapping Jorjani for the solicitor role, citing his corporate and legal experience.  

“Throughout his extensive tenure at the Department of the Interior, Dan has distinguished himself with his integrity, an incredible work ethic, humility, and dedication to Interior’s mission,” Bernhard said in a statement.