Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s relationship with his former client, the Westlands Water District, has raised new ethical questions, after reporting from the New York Times revealed his efforts to move a controversial dam expansion project in California.
“David Bernhardt has turned Interior into his own personal lobbying shop and shown that he is willing to sacrifice America’s public lands and even choke the life out of a river to help his former clients. He’s not even considering the devastating downstream impacts on other industries and the jobs that would be lost,” said Western Values Project Deputy Director Jayson O’Neill.
Secretary Bernhardt’s former client, the Westlands Water District, has long-pushed for an expansion of the Shasta Dam, despite potential harm to several endangered species and the California salmon industry. The Shasta Dam Project was considered dead in the water because it is environmentally damaging, cost-prohibitive, and illegal under California law until Westland’s former lobbyist David Bernhardt joined Interior. Now, Bernhardt’s Interior and Westlands are partnering to move this project forward over the objections and legal challenges of the State of California.
Lobby records show that Bernhardt worked on behalf of Westlands until at least the end of 2016 and was on a $20,000-a-month retainer. Bernhardt continued advising Westlands after joining the Trump administration, until some time in 2017. Before Bernhardt started at Interior, Westlands paid Bernhardt’s former firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, at least $1.3 million in lobbying fees.
When Secretary Bernhardt officially joined Interior, he was supposed to recuse himself from working on decisions that involved his former clients. But according to an Interior spokesperson, the Shasta Dam expansion that would directly benefit his former client inexplicitly did not count. Still, Bernhardt’s previous lobbying work laid the groundwork to move this project forward according to the Times.
As the chief lobbyist for Westlands, Mr. Bernhardt lobbied in favor of a federal water law that, among its many provisions, lets the Interior Department undertake expensive dam expansions provided that it finds an outside cost-sharing partner. Today, that provision, supported by Westlands, is what has enabled the Interior Department to expand the Shasta Dam, paid for under a cost-sharing plan with Westlands. Preliminary construction work has begun.”
Within four months of officially joining Interior, then-Deputy Secretary Bernhardt reportedly pushed for a decision that would be beneficial for this former client by rolling back endangered species protections for the delta smelt. Although Bernhardt claims he was allowed to work on the issue after receiving verbal approval from Interior Department lawyers, the clear conflict of interest, a potential violation of ethics laws, became the basis of an ongoing multi-faceted ethics investigation into the conflicted-secretary.
The Shasta Dam expansion project is roundly opposed by the California state government, local tribes, and conservation groups alike. The proposed dam would cost $1.5 billion, cause immeasurable impacts on Native American cultural heritage sites in addition to the devastating ecological impacts. The project has also been called unlawful for circumventing California’s Wild and Scenic River Act.