Interior Official Broke Ethics Rules, Government Watchdog Concludes

Mr. Domenech served in the Interior Department during nearly the entire George W. Bush administration, when the agency became ensnared in corruption scandals. In one such scandal, a deputy secretary of the interior, J. Steven Griles, was imprisoned for lying to a Senate committee about his ties to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The inspector general’s report noted that, as a former administration official with broad experience in office, Mr. Domenech had received ethics training on multiple occasions. But Mr. Domenech told investigators that he had not fully understood the ethics rules before attending the meetings with his former employer. However, in 2018 Mr. Domenech read a newspaper article describing similar meetings between an Interior Department official and a former employer, describing such meetings as inappropriate, and then told the agency’s senior lawyers about his meetings.

According to the report, Mr. Domenech told the inspector general that he had scheduled two April 2017 meetings with the Texas Public Policy Foundation at the request of the organization’s attorney. At the meetings, which were also attended by two other top Interior Department officials, the participants discussed two key topics of interest to the foundation: its litigation concerning the Bone Cave harvestman, an endangered orange spider whose preservation had affected Texas land use, and a legal dispute between the Interior Department and Texas residents near the state’s Red River.

This year, the Interior Department announced that it was opening a review to consider removing Endangered Species Act protections on the Bone Cave harvestman, which has been protected under the law since 1988.

Mr. Domenech told agency watchdog officials that he was aware of the prohibition on government officials meeting with former employers but believed he was exempt from that rule because, while at the foundation, he had not worked specifically on policy matters involving the spider or the Red River case.

Mr. Domenech told investigators that his follow-up “Keep fighting” email, which also focused on the Bone Cave harvestman, was “his way of encouraging the T.P.P.R. to continue to pursue its constitutional rights,” the report said, “and he denied that he was commenting on the litigation in any way.”

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