Probe: Top US Interior official misused office to get son-in-law job
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A senior Trump administration official misused his office for private gain by capitalizing on his government connections to help get his son-in-law hired at the Environmental Protection Agency, investigators said in a report obtained by The Associated Press.
The Interior Department’s Inspector General found that Assistant Interior Secretary Douglas Domenech reached out to a senior EPA official in person and later by email in 2017 to advocate for the son-in-law when he was seeking a job at the agency.
Investigators said Domenech also appeared to misuse his position to promote a second family member’s wedding-related business to the same EPA official, who was engaged at the time.
The AP obtained the report detailing the investigation in advance of its public release.
It’s the second finding of ethical violations in six months against Domenech, the agency’s assistant secretary for insular and international affairs. Investigators in December found that he broke federal ethics rules by twice meeting with his former employer, a conservative Texas-based policy group, to discuss legal disputes between the group and the agency in early 2017.
The contacts between Domenech and the EPA official began at a concert at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Virginia in the fall of 2017.
Domenech, three family members including the son-in-law and the senior EPA official had received free tickets through the office of then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, the report said.
The son-in-law was not named or otherwise identified in the report, but two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details publicly identified his relation to Domenech. One of those who spoke anonymously identified the son-in-law as Eric Frandy.
Frandy married Domenech’s daughter, Emily, a Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, in 2012, according to the couple’s online wedding registry. The report referred to him as “family member 1.”
While at the Wolf Trap concert, Domenech was seated with the EPA official and “used his position to gain access to the EPA senior official when he believed family member 1 could not,” the report said.
Domenech followed up with multiple emails to the EPA official, including one in which he provided Frandy’s name and his experience and repeated that his son-in-law was seeking a job at the agency, the report said.
“Let me know if we can ever be of service,” Domenech said in closing the message, according to the report.
He later told investigators that the email was a “courtesy” intended to move the process along.
“When asked if moving the process along was a way to influence the EPA hiring process, Domenech said, ‘Well, when I think of influencing ... I guess you’re right. I was trying to influence the process to move along. That’s different than influencing the process to hire,’” the report said.
Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt’s office concluded Domenech’s actions were specifically aimed at benefiting his son-in-law.
“The evidence indicates Domenech intended to use his position and title to induce the EPA to act,” Greenblatt’s office said in the report.
No criminal violations were found, according to Greenblatt’s office. Breaking the law at issue becomes a criminal matter it benefits the violator directly or the person’s wife, child or business — but not if it involves an in-law, according to the federal code.
Domenech was required to undergo additional ethics training as a result of the investigations into his conduct, Interior spokesman Nicholas Goodwin said. No further disciplinary action was taken and the matter is considered resolved, he said.
“The underlying events regarding Mr. Domenech occurred in 2017 before the Department initiated an unprecedented effort to invest in building a culture of ethical compliance and dramatically expanding the Department of the Interior’s Ethics Office Program,” Goodwin said.
Domenech did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Frandy did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, called on Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to fire Domenech.
“Firing Mr. Domenech is 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,” Grijalva said in a statement.
Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and other private interests, took over as secretary after Zinke resigned in December 2018 amid multiple ethics allegations and has publicly sought to tamp down on misbehavior at the agency, in part by hiring more ethics officials.
But Democratic lawmakers and some advocacy groups have remained critical of what they depict as rampant unethical behavior within the agency’s top ranks.
Domenech previously worked as a political appointee in the Interior Department under former President George W. Bush. He later went to work for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and was supposed to recuse himself for two years from dealings with the group.
He went through two rounds of ethics training when he first joined the Trump administration as a senior advisor to Zinke in 2017, according to the investigation. That training included specific admonitions against using his office “to endorse friends, relatives or persons with whom you are affiliated in a non-governmental capacity,” the report said.
The identity of the senior EPA official involved in the case was not disclosed in the report. Investigators reached out to the official six times to request an interview but the person did not respond and has since left the EPA, the report said.
The EPA employee who selected the son-in-law for hiring told investigators that the senior official “was interested in bringing (him) on the team” but that the was ultimately hired because he was qualified, the report said.
EPA spokeswoman Andrea Woods declined comment when asked about the job Frandy was hired for at the agency, saying it does not discuss personnel matters.