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Interior attorney gave false information to Congress about contact with Koch Foundation

Daniel Jorjani, the agency’s top lawyer, reached out to his former employer for advice in April 2017.

 

Daniel Jorjani appears before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee for his confirmation hearing on May 2, 2019.
YouTube/Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

This story was originally published by Huffpost and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The question that Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, asked Daniel Jorjani, then the nominee to serve as the Interior Department’s top lawyer, in his confirmation hearing last year was direct: “Since you’ve been in the Department of the Interior, have you had any oral or written contact with any of the personnel associated with Freedom Partners or the Koch brothers’ various business or political interests?”

Before joining the department in January 2017, Jorjani worked as a high-paid operative at several organizations connected to fossil fuel moguls Charles and David Koch. He held a senior policy position at the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute from 2010 to 2012 and served as general counsel at the Koch-backed Freedom Partners from 2012 to 2017.

“To the best of my recollection, I’ve never had a meeting nor any official communications with them.”

“To the best of my recollection,” Jorjani replied at the May 2019 hearing, “I’ve never had a meeting nor any official communications with them.” He subsequently dodged the same question when King asked it in writing.

It turns out the Interior official did in fact have contact with the Koch network, as Yahoo News’ Alexander Nazaryan reported on Wednesday. In April 2017, a few months after joining the Trump administration, Jorjani emailed Brian Hooks, president of the Charles Koch Foundation, to ask if he knew anyone who might want to serve on the board of the National Park Service’s official charity. 

“Would any of the stakeholders’ families or key network participants be interested in joining the board of the National Park Foundation?” Jorjani wrote, according to documents that the Western Values Project, a public lands advocacy group, obtained through a public records request and provided to Yahoo News. “It is one of our top-tier boards.”

The inquiry ultimately didn’t amount to much. An official in the Koch network told Yahoo there was no communication beyond Hooks’ initial response, in which he told Jorjani he would “have a look and let you know if there’s an opportunity to learn more.”

But Jorjani’s failure to disclose the email could land him, yet again, in hot water ― not because the man who is now Interior’s solicitor violated federal ethics rules, but because he possibly perjured himself. 

“He appears to have misrepresented the facts to Congress,” Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told HuffPost in an email. That raises the question of whether he knowingly gave a false statement under oath ― in other words, committed perjury. Jorjani did qualify his statement with the phrase “to the best of my recollection.”

Interior Department spokeswoman Carol Danko told HuffPost via email that Jorjani “did not recall sending an email almost 2 years prior, in part at the request of the National [Park] Foundation, that led to no action of any kind.” 

“Any suggestion that his answer is somehow controversial is absurd,” she said.

Interior notified Sen. King’s office once Jorjani became aware of the email “thanks to a FOIA request,” Danko said. She did not respond to HuffPost’s question about whether Jorjani has had any other contact with the Koch network. 

As for potential violations of ethics rules, Canter said there do not appear to be any. The Trump administration’s ethics pledge bars political appointees from participating in certain matters involving former employers or clients for two years, but defines “former employer” as someone for whom the official worked within two years of their appointment. Jorjani left the Charles Koch Foundation and Charles Koch Institute in January 2012. 

“Therefore, his Interior department communications with persons representing those entities would not violate the 2-year cooling off period in the Ethics Pledge,” Canter said.

Along with serving as president of the Koch outfits, Hooks was on the board of the now-defunct Freedom Partners. However, he became a member in late 2017, months after his communication with Jorjani about the National Park Foundation.

This isn’t the first time Jorjani has faced accusations of perjury. In July last year, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, placed a hold on his confirmation to the top solicitor post over concerns that Jorjani lied to lawmakers about his role in reviewing public information requests submitted to the department. Wyden also requested that the Justice Department investigate whether Jorjani perjured himself during his May confirmation hearing.

At that hearing, Jorjani, by then Interior’s principal deputy solicitor, told lawmakers that “I myself don’t review FOIAs or make determinations.” It was a baffling statement from the person who oversaw the department’s Freedom of Information Act program as the designated “chief FOIA officer,” per a 2018 order from then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. 

Jorjani not only knew about the department’s “awareness review” policy ― under which political appointees were told if their names showed up in documents about to be released ― but often examined records before their release, according to documents made public by the environmental group Earthjustice last month. CQ Roll Call reported in June that Interior political appointees “regularly delayed” and in some cases withheld records. 

Interior’s FOIA policy is the subject of an ongoing inspector general investigation.

Top Interior officials have repeatedly stressed that improving the agency’s ethics program is a top priority. “The role of ethics is incredibly important to the U.S. Department of the Interior,” Jorjani told lawmakers last May. 

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/climate-desk-interior-ordered-an-end-to-science-forward-parks-policy/]

But ethics probes have plagued the department under President Donald Trump. Zinke resigned in January 2019 under a cloud of scandal and federal investigations. David Bernhardt became the subject of a probe four days after being confirmed as the new secretary, shortly after The New York Times reported that he intervened to block a scientific report on the threat certain pesticides pose to endangered species. In December, the agency’s inspector general concluded there was “no evidence that Bernhardt exceeded or abused his authority or that his actions influenced or altered the findings of career [Fish and Wildlife Service] scientists.”

Another ongoing inspector general investigation targets six current and former officials who maintained close ties to former employers while at Interior. That probe stems from a complaint by the D.C.-based nonprofit Campaign Legal Center that cites HuffPost’s reporting and alleges a “disturbing pattern of misconduct” across the department. 

In a March 2017 email to colleagues, Jorjani boasted that he had “successfully protected” Interior political appointees facing investigations and that “at the end of the day, our job is to protect the Secretary” from ethics probes and bad press ― comments that Wyden called “particularly troubling” in May.

This week’s revelation of Jorjani’s exchange with Hooks reaffirms that the Trump administration “was dead set on politicizing a board that should have been solely focused on supporting America’s national parks,” Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project, said in a statement.

“The Trump administration and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s cast of corrupt characters are up to more of the same crooked diablerie threatening the future of America’s public lands and national parks.”

“The Trump administration and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s cast of corrupt characters are up to more of the same crooked diablerie threatening the future of America’s public lands and national parks,” O’Neill said. 

The Interior Department called the Western Values Project statement “another example of the group’s incessant, unjustified attacks on Interior Department officials.” 

Chris D'Angelo is a reporter for HuffPost, based in Washington, D.C. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.