Democrats blasted Daniel Jorjani, the nominee to serve as the Interior Department’s top lawyer, during a confirmation hearing Thursday for his 2017 email telling agency colleagues that “our job is to protect the Secretary” from ethics probes and bad press.
In the March 2017 exchange, released as part of an open records request posted to the department’s website and first reported on by HuffPost, Jorjani raised concerns about an Interior staffer’s $4,000 six-day trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The former staffer, Russell Roddy, had traveled to the Virgin Islands in preparation for a trip that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took that spring.
In his email, Jorjani warned Roddy that “$4,000 for a six day advance in the Virgin Islands is not a small [sum] and will draw the [Office of the Inspector General’s] attention.” He added in parentheses: “OIG’s love travel investigations. They are easy to document and spin in a negative way.”
Jorjani then boasted that he had “worked and successfully protected” Interior appointees facing investigations from the department’s internal watchdog and said it was Interior staffers’ responsibility to keep Zinke out of trouble. “At the end of the day our job is to protect the Secretary,” he wrote.
In Jorjani’s Thursday hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called the comment “particularly troubling.”
“Last time I looked, Interior lawyers are responsible for protecting the best interests of the American people before those of the secretary or special interests,” Wyden said.
Jorjani defended the email by pointing out that he was still a special assistant to Zinke at the time and was appointed principal deputy solicitor two months later. He said he was “politely reprimanding” an employee who was, as he saw it, “taking advantage of a trip for what bordered on personal expenses.” Roddy, he said, “responded negatively.”
“I do take seriously, in that role, the obligation to protect the secretary and the secretary’s immediate office against misuse of taxpayers’ dollars,” Jorjani said.
Yet the emails paint a different picture. In a rather blunt email, Roddy explained in detail why he needed to stay on the islands for as long as he did. “I may not be good at a lot of things,” he told Jorjani, “but one thing I know I am good at is efficiently planning and executing events and advance.”
Roddy added that while he was “in dire need of a vacation,” the extended trip was not about giving himself “an extra day of rest and relaxation.”
Jorjani didn’t exactly reprimand Roddy as he described on Thursday. “Rusty - Not your fault,” he wrote before blaming another staffer for failing to prepare the paperwork ahead of the trip.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) zeroed in on Jorjani’s comment about how inspectors general “love travel investigations” because they’re easy to “spin.”
“What in the hell do you mean by that?” King asked, adding that Jorjani’s comment “implies a disrespect” for the watchdog office.
“I can only say that I have the highest, utmost respect for the Office of the Inspector General,” Jorjani replied.
“Well, I can only say that’s inconsistent with what you said in your email,” King snapped back.
“The way Interior has acted under the Trump administration is the textbook definition of a political cartel, using state resources to help the special interests.”
A former adviser for fossil fuel moguls Charles and David Koch, Jorjani has served as Interior’s principal deputy solicitor since May 2017 and was officially tapped last month for the solicitor post. The new role includes managing the agency’s ethics office, which has come under increased scrutiny after the department’s Office of Inspector General announced a pair of ethics probes into multiple high-ranking agency officials, including newly confirmed Secretary David Bernhardt.
Wyden told Jorjani he has a “nonexistent record of ethics enforcement” as acting solicitor, noting that several inspector general investigations were closed after agency officials failed to cooperate with investigators’ requests. As HuffPost reported last May, Jorjani 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.
“The way Interior has acted under the Trump administration is the textbook definition of a political cartel, using state resources to help the special interests,” Wyden said. “And it sure looks to me like Mr. Jorjani has been a key member of the cartel.”
In what Wyden called a “bizarre twist,” Jorjani appeared Thursday alongside Mark Lee Greenblatt, Trump’s nominee to serve as Interior inspector general. If confirmed, Greenblatt, now the assistant inspector general for investigations at the Department of Commerce, would take over several of the Interior watchdog’s ongoing probes.
Greenblatt said he has a long track record of fair and independent oversight and assured lawmakers he has no intention of shutting down ongoing investigations.
“I have no problem making referrals over to the Department of Justice if there’s an obstruction of our investigation into agency employees,” he said. “I’ll have DOJ on speed dial if I need to.”
“Last time I looked, Interior lawyers are responsible for protecting the best interests of the American people before those of the secretary or special interests.”
Jorjani was also asked why he’d overturned multiple legal opinions by previous solicitors, actions that suggested his “political ideology overtook basically the rule of law,” according to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the committee’s ranking Democrat.
In December 2017, for example, Jorjani issued a legal opinion that protects energy companies and other parties from being prosecuted for unintentionally killing migratory bird species.
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) told Jorjani she found it “hard to believe” that his time working for the Koch brothers didn’t influence his decision to roll back migratory bird protections. Jorjani held senior positions at the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute and worked as general counsel at the Koch-supported Freedom Partners.
“What industry most benefits from your [legal] opinion?” Hirono asked.
“I’m not aware of any particular industry that benefits from this,” Jorjani replied. “I’d like to think the American people benefit from a...”
“I’d like to think so, too,” Hirono interjected. “But you cannot escape the conclusion that the people you used to work for before, the Koch brothers, that this one was one of their biggest issues that they wanted to have done away with ― prosecutions under the migratory species treaty.”
“I would say the oil and gas industry are the biggest beneficiaries,” Hirono said.