Deb Haaland – Secretary of the Interior
Deb Haaland has received much attention for being the country’s first Native American Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI). However, with only one term as a Representative and no other relevant government or private sector experience under her belt, Haaland will have to rely heavily on veteran advisors to help her run the massive bureaucracy at the Department. Yet her early troubles filing simple financial disclosures and the ethics challenges of her senior staff could mar her ability to fulfill her duties in a compliant and transparent manner.
Prior to her confirmation as Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland served one term in the House of Representatives as Representative for New Mexico’s First Congressional District. She was elected after being active in the New Mexico Democratic Party, first as its unsuccessful candidate for Lieutenant Governor in 2014 and subsequently as its State Chair. Additionally, she is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo, having served as the Chairwoman for its Laguna Development Corporation (LDC) Board of Directors from 2010-2015 and as a consultant leading up to her election to Congress.
During the confirmation process, Haaland amended her 2019 House ethics report multiple times such that questions remain whether the public has been provided the full picture. Equally concerning are several of the choices Secretary Haaland has made for the leadership team at the DOI and her initial directions that they be charged with implementing agenda items that overlap with their ethics obligations. Finally, potential conflicts involving Tribal entities remain a major issue. Considering Haaland’s focus on advancing Tribal priorities, the large sums of financial aid being provided to Tribes through DOI bureaus, and a substantial number of political appointees with Tribal connections, what assurances can the Department provide the public that systems are in place to prevent self-dealing or violating ethics rules?
Representative for New Mexico’s First District
During Haaland’s one term in office, she served as the Vice Chair for House Natural Resources Committee. The majority of her efforts were dedicated to advancing Native American issues, a priority she appears poised to continue at DOI. As noted above, her House ethics report filed in 2019 has garnered attention for its multiple amendments correcting basic information. For instance, in 2019 she reported on her ethics report no liabilities and $30,550 from the Laguna Development Corporation. Upon filing her disclosure during the confirmation process, she quietly amended her 2019 form, adding $16,000 in “salary” from the San Felipe Casino, which has since changed its name to Black Mesa Casino. The amendment also listed student debts of between $15,001-$50,000 that were not on her 2019 form.
While this might have been a simple error when filing her first financial disclosure, a second amendment later in the confirmation process reported roughly $4,000 in income. Whether this latest filing erases nearly $40,000 in previously reported income for 2018 or adds to it, the public is left to wonder whether we now have the full picture. Has she reported the correct income amount to the Internal Revenue Service? Are there some accounting gimmicks being employed to distort her financial situation? Given the multiple unexplained changes, the public is rightfully confused as to what to believe and if the story will change again.
Biden Department of the Interior
In Secretary Haaland’s short time at DOI, she has already had to confront personnel challenges involving Jennifer Van der Heide, her former chief of staff while a Representative, and Elizabeth Klein, the appointee originally intended to be the nominee for Deputy Secretary. Both appointees have since been given Senior Counselor roles that continue their involvement in the Department’s most important decisions while avoiding the Senate confirmation process and leaving unanswered lingering questions over their judgment and potential ethics conflicts. Adding to these concerns is the pending confirmation of Tommy Beaudreau, a Deputy Secretary who brings with him an unprecedented number of potential conflicts from former clients and recusals touching on the Department’s highest-profile priorities.
Based on reports of the previous Secretary’s intricate system of compliance with the ethics restrictions involving his former employer and former clients, Secretary Haaland’s top advisors will likely have to develop a similar system to avoid running afoul of the law. It will be important for the public to understand how Secretary Haaland will ensure she is able to fulfill her duties while relying on her senior staff and number two at the Department in a compliant manner.
Unfortunately, one of Secretary Haaland’s early actions only adds to the concern whether these considerations are appreciated and that a robust system for preventing conflicts of interest has been developed. Specifically, on April 16, 2021, Secretary Haaland signed Secretary’s Order 3399, which established a Departmental Climate Task Force to implement the administration’s climate agenda. The order designates the Deputy Secretary and the Senior Counselor to the Secretary to be co-chairs of the task force, which will undertake a wide-ranging review of energy and environmental policies and priorities for the DOI.
It is very likely that this task force’s jurisdiction will be a key driver in the administration’s climate agenda. It is therefore equally likely that it will encompass issues that involve either or both of Ms. Klein or Mr. Beaudreau’s former employers or clients. Despite this fact, and the clear potential for conflicts of interest and/or the appearance of such conflicts, Secretary Haaland has ordered them to lead this effort, raising questions about what systems have been put in place to ensure ethics responsibilities are met.