Senior Interior Official Broke Ethics Rules a 2nd Time, Watchdog Says


WASHINGTON — A senior Department of Interior official violated federal ethics rules by using his position to try to get a family member a job at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department’s internal watchdog said in a report published Friday.

The conclusion marked the second time in six months that the internal investigator has admonished the official, Douglas W. Domenech, an assistant interior secretary for the office that oversees the nation’s oceans and coasts, for serious ethics violations. Top Democrats and environmental groups called for David Bernhardt, the interior secretary, to fire Mr. Domenech.

“The evidence established that Domenech used his title and permitted the use of his title to further family member 1’s interests,” the report found, without identifying the relative.

By using his title and government email to correspond about his relative’s job prospects, and by taking advantage of his position to connect with a senior E.P.A. official about his family member’s application, investigators said Mr. Domenech violated ethics rules “by using his position for family member 1’s private gain.”

Conner Swanson, a department spokesman, said in a statement that the events surrounding Mr. Domenech “occurred in 2017 before the Department initiated an unprecedented effort to invest in building a culture of ethical compliance.” The agency has since tripled its number of ethics officials, he said.

The watchdog report noted that “at the time of these events Domenech was not new to government service,” having worked for the federal government for more than a decade, and had annual ethics training, “which specifically addressed the federal prohibitions against misuse of position, title and government resources.”

In December, internal investigators found that Mr. Domenech broke federal ethics rules by improperly meeting with his former employer, a conservative research organization, to discuss the rollback of endangered species protections. Meeting with representatives of that group, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, where Mr. Domenech worked before he joined the Trump administration, created the appearance of a conflict of interest, the December report said.

Representative Raúl Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who heads the House Committee on Natural Resources, called Friday for Mr. Domenech to be fired, describing it as “the only serious course of action at this point.”

“Another round of ethics training is clearly just a waste of time, since it hasn’t sunk in by now,” Mr. Grijalva said.

Representative Rob Bishop of Utah, the ranking Republican on the panel, declined through a spokesman to comment.

According to the new report, the contacts between Mr. Domenech and the E.P.A. official began during a concert at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, a popular open-air concert venue in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, in the fall of 2017.

Mr. Domenech along with two family members, one of whom had recently applied for a job at E.P.A., as well as a senior E.P.A. official and that official’s fiancée were in attendance. All had received free tickets from the office of Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary at the time.

Mr. Domenech told investigators that he did not remember whether he knew in advance that the E.P.A. official would be in attendance. He said the family member’s application came up casually as the officials talked in the venue’s hospitality tent. But Mr. Domenech also described it as “an awkward moment” and said at one point he pulled the E.P.A. official aside and said, “Hey, I really apologize. I did not set this up.”

The E.P.A. official invited Mr. Domenech to follow up on the family member’s application and Mr. Domenech told investigators that a subsequent email to the E.P.A. was a “courtesy” to move the process along.

According to the report, when asked if that follow-up was an effort to influence the E.P.A. hiring process, Mr. Domenech said: “I was trying to influence the process to move along. That’s different than influencing the process to hire.”

Mr. Domenech said the group at the concert also discussed a second family member’s wedding business because the E.P.A. official was engaged to be married. The follow-up email from Mr. Domenech included that family member’s business name and website link.

In explaining why he included that information on Interior Department correspondence, Mr. Domenech told investigators that either the E.P.A. official or the fiancée may have asked for it but that he was not attempting to get business from the E.P.A. official. The family member with the wedding business never ultimately provided services, he said.

“We determined that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would conclude that Domenech appeared to misuse his position to endorse and promote family member 2’s business despite Domenech’s stated intent,” investigators wrote. They concluded that including his family member’s business name and link “ran afoul” of ethics rules.

The E.P.A. did not respond to a request for comment. The Interior Department’s inspector general report has been sent to the agency chief of staff for action. An Interior Department statement said Mr. Domenech had received additional ethics guidance and ethics training and that the department considered the matter resolved.



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