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Former California water lobbyist, Trump’s Interior Secretary, under investigation

David Bernardt testifies at a Senate hearing on March 28. (Photo: Roll Call, via Associated Press)

The inspector general of the U.S. Interior Department has opened an investigation into Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s past work on behalf of California’s huge Westlands Water District and other organizations.

The action follows requests from a number of people and organizations, including Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-New York), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut). The senators asked Interior’s inspector general to investigate, among other things, Bernhardt’s involvement in proposals that would revise rules protecting the delta smelt, a California fish. The investigation covers Bernhardt’s time as the No. 2 official at Interior.

“We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them.” — Mary L. Kendall

California environmentalists and farmers have been at war for years over the legal river water the delta smelt and other fish need to survive and farmers need for their crops. Fresno-headquartered Westlands is the country’s largest irrigation district, roughly the size of Rhode Island, supplying water to  farms in the western San Joaquin Valley.

Nancy DiPaolo, spokeswoman for the Office of the Inspector General in the Department of the Interior, told Capitol Weekly her office had received 12 letters asking for an investigation of Bernhardt’s role in some California fish and game issues, including protection of the delta smelt.

In a letter to the executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, one of the groups asking for an investigation, Inspector General Mary L. Kendall said her office “received seven complaints, including yours, from a wide assortment of complainants alleging various conflict of interest and other violations by then deputy secretary of the interior, David Bernhardt.

“We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them,” Kendall added. “We will conduct our review as expeditiously and thoroughly as practicable.”

For a number of years, Bernhardt has shuttled between high-ranking posts in the Department of the Interior and being a longtime lobbyist and adviser to a number of energy companies and associations, including Westlands, Halliburton Energy Services, the offshore-energy trade group National Ocean Industry Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, among others.

“NOIA looks forward to working with the Department of the Interior.” — Randall Luthi

“David Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest who is selling out our public lands to his former clients in the fossil fuel industry,” said  Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a statement.

Others disagreed and praised Bernhardt.

Randall Luthi, the president of the National Ocean Industries Association, supported Bernhardt’s confirmation last week.

“NOIA looks forward to working with the Department of the Interior,” Luthi told the Washington Post, adding that the group encouraged timely decisions on important pending offshore policies, including Atlantic seismic permits, an expanded national offshore oil and gas leasing program, and a reliable and consistent schedule of future offshore wind lease sales.

Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke strongly endorsed Bernhardt’s 2017 nomination to be No. 2 in the interior department, saying Bernhardt’s experience in the Bush administration “and his legal career is exactly what is needed to help streamline government and make the Interior and our public lands work for the American economy.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is not a Bernhardt fan.

“I have serious concerns about the nomination of Mr. Bernhardt due to his numerous conflicts of interest, particularly his lobbying ties to the terrible Cadiz water extraction project that would drain a critical aquifer in California’s Mojave Desert,” she said. “He is now being asked to help lead the very department that would oversee approval of that project.

Cadiz is a groundwater-mining enterprise located some 80 miles east of Barstow. (That’s not far from Siberia, Ragtown and Bagdad, and just northwest of Chubbuck.)

“Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination is yet another example of President Trump breaking his promise to ‘drain the swamp.’ Instead, the president continues to pack his administration with corporate lobbyists who will now regulate the same companies they took money from,” Feinstein added.

In an email, Courtney Degener, Cadiz’s vice president for communications, said Bernhardt had not been a lobbyist for Cadiz.

“The project’s review and approval has followed every legal process and we trust any consideration of the project by the Interior Department would as well,” Degener said.

Cadiz is a groundwater-mining enterprise located some 80 miles east of Barstow. (That’s not far from Siberia, Ragtown and Bagdad, and just northwest of Chubbuck.)

When he re-entered Interior as its deputy secretary for the Trump administration in 2017, Bernhardt signed an ethics pledge that recused him from dealing directly with matters involving 26 former clients, including Westlands.

In an April 3 story, reporters for the Washington Post reported that Bernhardt’s former law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck of Denver, quadrupled its business related to Interior over the past three years.

The Post said that in 2018, two dozen clients paid the firm a total of $4.8 million to lobby Interior, according to data compiled from a lobbying database maintained by the Senate. In 2017, when Bernhardt left the firm to join the Trump administration as deputy secretary, it collected a total of $3.5 million in Interior-related revenue.

Since his arrival at the Interior Department in summer 2017, he has had to recuse himself from matters directly affecting at least 26 former clients to adhere to the Trump administration’s ethics requirements.

In another Bernhardt complication, the National Archives and Records Administration gave the Interior Department until late April to address allegations from Democrats that Bernhardt may have been destroying his official calendars, according to a letter POLITICO obtained Friday.

In an April 1 letter to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.),  chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform,  NARA Chief Records Officer Laurence Brewer said:

“ .. Upon receipt and review of their report, I will meet with the Department’s Senior Agency Official for Records Management, Mr. Bruce Downs, and the Records Officer, Mr. David Alspach, to review this case and further address concerns pertaining to the Department’s records management policies and practices. Following this meeting, I will provide your Committee with a report of my findings along with all relevant correspondence and documentation.”

Since his arrival at the Interior Department in summer 2017, he has had to recuse himself from matters directly affecting at least 26 former clients to adhere to the Trump administration’s ethics requirements. His critics say he should have recused himself from far more.

Throughout his confirmation process, Bernhardt and his allies in the Senate argued that he has complied with the agency’s ethics guidelines and has hired additional ethics officers to strengthen them.

In his statement in his March 28 confirmation appearance before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Bernhardt spoke in favor of a balanced approach, declaring that interior under his watch “… will continue to work to help responsibly and effectively supply the energy needed to power our economy nationwide and provide good-paying jobs for American workers.”

Senators on April 11 voted 56-41, largely along party lines, in favor of Bernhardt’s confirmation.

“It is important to note that the department ethics office has already conducted a review of many of these accusations at Mr. Bernhardt’s request and determined that [he] is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws,” Faith Vander Voort, a department spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Vander Voort included a list of actions Bernhardt took as acting secretary before his Senate confirmation, such as elevating the ethics office as a division that reports to the solicitor, hiring more full-time ethics professionals and giving them the power to raise concerns “more quickly and more directly.”

Editor’s Note: CORRECTS by deleting 10th graf containing inaccurate reference to water district spokesman.

 


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