Conflict-ridden Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt has been working on rolling back endangered species protections for the Delta Smelt, a policy change that directly favors his former client, Westlands Water District, according to a breaking New York Times story. Although Bernhardt claims he was allowed to work on the issue after receiving verbal approval from Interior Department lawyers, independent ethics specialists quoted in the story say his working on a policy that would disproportionately benefit a former client is a clear conflict of interest.
“We’ve known all along that Bernhardt was willing to sell out public lands and water to the highest bidder,” said Chris Saeger, Executive Director of Western Values Project. “If working on a narrow policy that clearly benefits a former client isn’t a violation of his presidential ethics agreement, we don’t know what is. Bernhardt has been caught red-handed carrying water for Westlands, a former client that was even on the notecard he keeps in his pocket listing his vast conflicts of interest. This raises questions that only a formal investigation will be able to answer.”
The story reports that Bernhardt “directed David Murillo, a senior water-resources official for the mid-Pacific region, to begin the process of weakening protections for the smelt and another fish, the winter-run Chinook salmon, to free up river water for agriculture.” The policy change directly benefits Westlands Water District, and is what Westlands paid Bernhardt to lobby on when he was their lobbyist. Before Bernhardt began at Interior, the story reports, Westlands paid Bernhardt’s former firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, at least $1.3 million in lobbying fees.
Westlands Water District appears on David Bernhardt’s recusal note card, which he carries around with him while he’s at work so he can keep track of which former clients he isn’t allowed to work with.
Westlands Water District appears on Bernhardt’s ethics recusal notecard.
Western Values Project (WVP) was forced to file suit for public records requesting communications between Bernhardt, Interior officials and Westlands Water District on July 30, 2018, after the Interior Department failed to provide responsive documents. The original Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was filed on May 4, 2018. The court recently ordered the department to provide a status report to WVP on the public records by February 22.
David Bernhardt is currently President Trump’s nominee for Interior Secretary, and has been the acting Secretary since his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, stepped down amid a cloud of ethics scandals earlier this year.
Last year, WVP launched davidbernhardt.org in order to keep track of Bernhardt’s numerous conflicts of interest.