Probe: Interior held back Bernhardt records sought by court

The Interior Department withheld public documents related to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt ahead of his Senate confirmation, an agency watchdog office concluded in a report made public Tuesday.

While the Interior Department says the move did not violate the law or ethical standards, Democratic lawmakers called it a cover-up to smooth Bernhardt's April 2019 Senate confirmation and called for a criminal investigation by the Justice Department.

“Not since the Teapot Dome scandal have we seen a more corrupt Interior Department," Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona said in a statement, referencing the 1920s corruption scandal. “Political appointees at the agency have put their ideologically-based personal interests over the interests of the American people.”

The findings by the agency's inspector general conclude the agency temporarily withheld 253 pages from documents it released under a federal court order in a civil litigation case. The report didn't identify the court case or detail what was in the withheld documents. Most of the documents have since been released.

The Interior Department under President Donald Trump's administration has implemented closer review of any requests for public records under the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, that relate to political appointees in the agency, rather than career staff, the watchdog report notes.

A counselor to the secretary, Hubbel Relat, had directed the staffers in Interior’s Office of the Solicitor legal office and FOIA office to withhold documents related to Bernhardt, the report says.

An unidentified legal adviser is quoted as telling the agency's internal investigators that “Relat’s direction to withhold Bernhardt-related documents in the FOIA litigation was because Bernhardt was awaiting his confirmation hearing. The attorney also remembered that this direction from Relat was to remain in place until after Bernhardt’s confirmation,” the report says.

In an email statement Tuesday, Interior press secretary Ben Goldey said, “The report demonstrates that the Department’s actions were consistent with its legal, ethics, and FOIA obligations, including the applicable court order.”

The Department of Justice had agreed that the Interior Department was free to decide how it chose to process and release documents under the federal open-records request, Goldey said.

The Republican-led Senate confirmed Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, by a 56-41 vote.