Watchdog Questions Whether Haaland’s Top Water Attorney May Have Committed “Egregious” Violation of Federal Law

In wake of ethics questions among other appointees at Interior, Deputy Solicitor may have violated a criminal conflict of interest statute

Today, government watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust filed a complaint with the Department of the Interior asking the Office of the Inspector General to look into whether a high-ranking official may have violated his ethics obligations and Federal law. The complaint documents conduct that could constitute a blatant and egregious violation of ethics commitments.

In June 2021, Daniel Cordalis, Deputy Solicitor for Water Resources at the Department of the Interior (Department), personally rescinded a January 2021 memo issued by career attorneys. In withdrawing the earlier memo, the “Cordalis Memo” appears to have the effect of increasing funding to a Restoration Fund from which the Yurok Tribe in California has been a beneficiary. Court records indicate the Tribe was a client of Mr. Cordalis as recently as January. In addition, his wife currently serves as the Yurok Tribe’s General Counsel and has been touted by Tribal leaders as “the future” of the Tribe’s long-term success. Mrs. Cordalis testified on behalf of the Tribe at a Congressional hearing just weeks before her husband issued the Cordalis Memo.

Federal employees are required to act impartially, avoid situations that create the perception of a conflict of interest and are prohibited from working on particular matters involving entities with which they have a “covered relationship,” a category that includes former clients as well as spouse’s employers. The Biden Ethics Pledge expands such restrictions for political appointees. Employees may be granted waivers to certain requirements but are required to seek guidance from their agency’s ethics officials prior to engaging in matters that may put them in violation of these obligations. There is no such waiver posted by the Federal Office of Government Ethics, which publishes waivers granted to the Biden Ethics Pledge, and the Department has not provided any documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request for all such waivers.

“The American public has every right to demand that high-ranking federal officials act in the best interests of the public, not the interests of former employers and clients or their spouse’s employers,” stated Director of Protect the Public’s Trust, Michael Chamberlain. “The Biden Administration promised ‘the most ethically vigorous administration in history.’ At what point does Secretary Haaland begin holding her staff to that high standard? Unfortunately, with multiple reports of misconduct among Interior appointees under review, the public is wondering whether there is a ‘culture of conflicts’ among current DOI leadership.”

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BACKGROUND INFORMATION

The American public deserves to be assured that political appointees are carrying out their duties in an ethical, impartial manner without favoritism or unjust personal enrichment to their former clients or their family members. Protect the Public’s Trust therefore asks the Office of Inspector General and the Departmental Ethics Office to begin an immediate and thorough investigation into the following issues:

  1. Whether or not the Cordalis Memo constitutes a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 208 and thus warrants a referral to the appropriate authorities within the Department of Justice;
  2. Whether or not Mr. Cordalis sought or received guidance from the Ethics Office as to whether he should participation in the CVPIA issues addressed in the Cordalis Memo;
  3. If he did not, whether Mr. Cordalis should have sought or received guidance or approval from the Department Ethics Office (DEO) to participate in this matter given the strong potential for actual or perceived conflicts of interest;
  4. What guidance, if any, the DEO provided to Mr. Cordalis on this matter; and
  5. Whether or not Mr. Cordalis received a waiver to participate in this matter and, if not, whether his participation constitutes a violation of his ethics obligations Section 208, 502(a)(2) or the Biden Administration Ethics Pledge.