President-elect Donald J. Trump's pick for US Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, the controversial senator from Alabama who was denied the same federal judgeship in 1986 due to documented accusations of racism—started his confirmation hearing on Tuesday again amidst swirls of controversy.
Piled on top of lawmakers' many profound concerns is the fact that the senator did not disclose that he owns subsurface rights to oil and other minerals on 600 acres of land in Alabama, as is required by federal ethics rules. Some of those holdings lie underneath a federal wildlife refuge—a glaring conflict of interest if Sessions were to oversee any drilling or environmental issues as head of the Department of Justice (DOJ), or legislation protecting this land.
Sessions' 600 acres of subsurface oil and mineral reserves produce relatively small revenue—about $4,700 annually. They were not disclosed—as they are required to be—on the forms Sessions sent to the Office of Congressional Ethics, which reviews all Cabinet nominees' assets for any potential conflicts of interest. According to the Washington Post, the senator's assets were found in Alabama state records and reviewed by independent ethics lawyers. Sessions later disclosed this information in his hearing on Tuesday after lawmakers brought the omission to his attention.*
A lawyer assisting Sessions on the matter argued that the revenue was insignificant and assured the Post that "We are investigating these questions and looking carefully into the reporting forms submitted to be sure that they have accurately characterized the senator's holdings." He added, "To whatever extent that's not the case, the forms will be amended."
But the lapse has angered some Democratic politicians on the Senate Judiciary Committee which oversees the confirmation hearing for attorney general, particularly because some lie below federally protected land.
Sessions has also admitted that he owns thousands of dollars' worth of bonds in the Brazilian state-owned petroleum company.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat of Connecticut and member of the committee, remarked that "I am troubled by any omissions, but this is particularly troubling because this ownership interest involves oil and gas holdings connected to a federal wildlife refuge." When he was a member of the same committee, Sessions himself was vociferous in his criticisms of nominees he felt did not provide enough detailed information on their personal assets—he doesn't seem to hold himself to the same standard.
As a US DOJ investigation into one of the largest international corruption scandals ever continues to unfold, Sessions has admitted that he owns thousands of dollars' worth of bonds in the Brazilian state-owned petroleum company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, a suspected player in the scandal. The scandal was unearthed three years ago by a Brazilian internal investigation of Petrobras, eventually leading to the impeachment and removal of their President, Dilma Rousseff, last year. Bloomberg reports that Sessions' bonds are worth between $16,000 and $65,000, but that the senator has told the Office of Government Ethics that he plans to sell them. Not having to fully disclose all of his personal assets up front is something that Sessions seems to arbitrarily apply only to himself.
This finding is all the more alarming to some when put in consideration with the senator's known animosity towards climate change science and environmental regulation. As US attorney general, he would be responsible in guiding policy for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division—an arm of 400 lawyers responsible for enforcing federal laws on pollution and others concerning environmental regulation. If Sessions continues to hold oil assets underneath a federal wildlife refuge, it is unlikely he would be able to make unbiased decisions when it comes to drilling and environmental issues on protected lands.
"The fact that his oil is in a federal wildlife refuge means he should not be involved in DOJ policies concerning drilling or environmental issues" involving federal reserves, Trevor Potter, an ethics lawyer who has advised several GOP presidential candidates, told the Post. "Clearly he should have disclosed the asset."
The 4,218 acre Choctaw Wildlife Refuge is a criss-crossing web of lakes, sloughs, creeks and moist soil lands populated by white-tailed deer, turkey, raccoons, beavers, opossums and alligators. It is also a favorite wintering spot for thousands of migratory waterfowl. Wood ducks and wading bird numbers can exceed 10,000. But Senator Sessions leased his oil rights under the refuge to Chief Oil and Gas, a Texas firm, in 2015.
*This story was updated to include that Jeff Sessions admitted his ownership of the land in Alabama during the course of the hearing on Tuesday after the story was published. He did not disclose this information in the ethics forms before. This was his full answer:
SESSIONS: "Sen. Feinstein, I believe that's so. And the way it happened was that many years ago, at least 50 or more years ago, my family—ancestors—sold some land and reserve mineral rights. Later, there was a dam built on the river and a desire to take land that was going to be flooded and to add additional land for a duck preserve. And they negotiated, and the family sold land to the government and retained the mineral rights, per the agreement.
At least, that's my understanding. By an odd series of events, the properties fell to me. I've never reviewed the deeds. I've never known how much land is out there that I own mineral rights on. Although, oil companies are pretty good at making sure they contact real owners before they drill a well. So you're correct that we reported the income on my return as coming from the property that I own and the property where the oil well is. I did not note in that report specifically that it was all income—the blank said royalties but..maybe..— I would just say to you this. We absolutely—this is something I've taken no affirmative action in, it's something I'm going to take affirmative action in. I have one of the simplest, clearest, fairest financial reports you can see. My assets and my wife's assets are almost entirely vanguard funds and municipal bonds. I've owned no individual stocks, because I want to be sure I don't have conflicts of interest. I want to adhere to high standards. We are going to find out what we did or didn't do, and we are going to correct it."
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.