Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) today called on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to delay its vote on conflict-ridden Interior Secretary nominee David Bernhardt following a new Washington Post report confirming that the “Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General is reviewing allegations that acting secretary David Bernhardt may have violated his ethics pledge by weighing in on issues affecting a former client.” The Senate committee is scheduled to vote on Bernhardt’s nomination tomorrow, April 4.
“While we’ve known all along that Bernhardt was willing to sell out public lands and water to the highest bidder, the fact that his own department is investigating his rampant conflicts of interest should be enough to sink his nomination,” said Chris Saeger, Executive Director of Western Values Project. “Just like his scandal-plagued predecessor, Bernhardt’s culture of corruption at Interior is already well-known — but there is no way that the Senate can in good conscience advance his nomination while his extensively documented ethics violations are being investigated.”
Sen. Wyden’s call for Bernhardt’s “flawed nomination” to be put on hold comes after the Interior Department and the Office of Government Ethics were asked to investigate actions Bernhardt took to ostensibly benefit his former lobbying client, Westlands Water District. During his tenure as Deputy Interior Secretary, Bernhardt initiated a review of Endangered Species Act protections for two endangered species of fish in California, an issue he advocated for while working as a lobbyist for Westlands.
Although Bernhardt claims he was allowed to work on the issue after receiving verbal approval from Interior Department lawyers, independent ethics specialists have said his work on a policy that would disproportionately benefit a former client is a clear conflict of interest.
Westlands is the largest agricultural district in the country according to their website and has water delivered to producers through the Central Valley Project (CVP), a federal water project. The District is a local-government entity formed in 1952 which makes it subject to California’s Public Records Act (CPRA).
Lobby records show that Bernhardt worked on behalf of the district until at least the end of 2016 and was on a $20,000-a-month retainer. Emails obtained by Campaign for Accountability show that Bernhardt had continued advising the district until some time in 2017, prompting a request for an investigation by the group. Within four months of his confirmation as Interior Deputy Secretary, it was reported that Bernhardt pushed for a decision that would be beneficial for his former client.
Rolling back protections for the Delta Smelt and the Chinook Salmon is hardly Bernhardt’s first push to implement policy changes that benefit a former client. Late last year, WVP launched davidbernhardt.org, a website that details Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest and highlights instances of Interior policies he has worked on that benefit his former clients.