Deputy Secretary of Interior and ex-lobbyist David Bernhardt issued an agency-wide memo announcing new ethics initiatives for the department, aimed at preventing employees from making “decisions that [are] unethical and in some cases illegal.” Based on both Bernhardt and Secretary Ryan Zinke’s previous ethical lapses, however, it seems that they are exempt from their own agency’s ethical standards.
Deputy Secretary Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest have been well-documented. His former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, is deeply involved in lobbying Interior on energy and environmental issues. Bernhardt already had a difficult time answering questions regarding his ethics recusals during his Senate confirmation hearing. He stated under oath that he’d remove himself from decisions related to former clients for one year. Secretary Zinke’s ethical flaps have also been well-documented.
The Trump administration’s ethics executive order requires former lobbyists to not only remove themselves from participating in any particular matter on which they lobbied in the prior two years, but also from participating in the specific issue area in which that particular matter falls for two years.
Bernhardt was previously employed by or had other financial ties to four entities in decisions that have come before Interior officials. Yet, when Western Values Project (WVP) requested Bernhardt’s filed ethics waivers through a Freedom of Information Act request, the department found no responsive documents. If Bernhardt was involved in any of those decisions, he could have violated both Senate and Executive ethics requirements.
In October 2017, the Bureau of the Land Management announced a change of administrative opinion that could make millions for Cadiz Inc., a recent client of former lobbyist and current Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt.
Since 1992, Cadiz, Inc. has been trying to pump desert groundwater from Cadiz Valley in the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles. While at the Washington, D.C. firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck LLP, Bernhardt lobbied directly for Cadiz as they attempted to clear the way for the controversial project to go through. Bernhardt’s former firm stands to gain 200,000 shares in Cadiz, Inc. stock should the project be completed, estimated to be worth over $2.5 million. [Jayson O’Neill, “Is the Deputy Secretary at Interior doing favors for former clients?,” Western Values Project, 10/18/17]
The Garrison Diversion Conservancy District (GDCD) is “spearheading” a project to “diver[t] Missouri River water to supplement water supplies in the Red River Valley.” Proponents say the project is necessary “to meet the demands of residents and businesses,” but environmental and fiscal concerns have long plagued the project.
The project “has faced many obstacles over the decades, including environmental opposition and the federal budget crunch.” Critics have described the Red River Valley Water Supply Project as “costly and unneeded” and at one point in 1990 it was described as “possibly the most criticized water project in the nation.” [Stan Stelter: “Letter: Nix the Red River Valley Water Supply Project,” Grand Forks Herald, 11/25/16, Philip Brasher, “Lujan To Look For Alternatives On North Dakota’s Garrison Project,” Associated Press, 03/28/90, and Patrick Springer, “Red River Water Supply Project funding faces new hurdle,” Bismarck Tribune, 03/28/16]
There has been “stiff resistance” to the idea of “carrying Missouri River water to the Red River,” in particular from “Canada and Minnesota over concerns about impacts to water quality.” “Shifting water into the Red River Valley has sparked fears of invasive species and added pollution in Manitoba” and concerns that the transfer could “bring major risks to Manitoba waterways.” A Canadian water expert said that “‘the water heading north would contain sulfate, chloride and possible invasive species, as well as additional phosphorous and nitrogen, two nutrients that fuel algae growth on Lake Winnipeg.'” [Patrick Springer, “Red River Valley water supply project may stall,” Inforum, 03/21/15, and Joyanne Pursaga, “Manitoba experts fear N.D. water plan harmful here,” Winnipeg Sun, 08/11/17]
Opposition also comes from Missouri and other states downstream on the Missouri River opposed to removing water from the Missouri, who are concerned about the quantity of water that would be transferred. [Patrick Springer, “Red River Valley water supply project may stall,” Inforum, 03/21/15]
The Garrison Diversion Conservancy District wants to get started on the project soon because the Trump administration’s “environmental and natural resource policies are supportive of projects like the water supply pipeline.” North Dakota officials fear that a delay “could mean adverse policy decisions from a future administration, including a broader definition of wetland, which could make it much more difficult to get an approved pipeline route.” [Patrick Springer, “ND officials: Optimism builds over $1 billion water pipeline to serve Red River Valley, central ND,” WDAY, 11/06/17]
As of July 2017, Garrison Diversion Conservancy District had “requested permission from the U.S. Department of the Interior to use the McClusky Canal to draw Missouri River water, as it would result in $171 million in capital savings to the RRVWSP.” Ken Royse, the Garrison Diversion board chairman, said that, “‘We are hopeful the Department of the Interior will grant our request to use the McClusky Canal for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project,” as using the canal is “‘the most cost-effective option.'” [“RRVWSP 2017-2019 Work Plan presented to Water Topics Overview Committee,” Foster County Independent, 07/31/17]
David Bernhardt, before he was Deputy Secretary of the Interior, provided “legal services” to the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District.
On his Public Financial Disclosure Report that he filed before becoming Deputy Secretary, Bernhardt wrote down Garrison Diversion Irrigation District as a source of “compensation exceeding $5,000 in a year.” He said he provided GDCD “legal services.” [Jesse Paul, “Colorado’s David Bernhardt is sworn into post as deputy Interior secretary after contentious nomination,” Denver Post, 08/01/17, and David Bernhardt, OGE Form, 2017]
David Bernhardt oversaw Donald Trump’s Interior Transition team in November 2016. By January 30, 2017, Bernhardt was rumored to be nominated for Interior Deputy Secretary. Months later, on April 7, 2017, Bernhardt participated in a Garrison Diversion Conservancy District Board of Directors meeting, during which GDCD received a “Report of Washington, DC, Consulting Firm.” In this report, Bernhardt “gave a summary of the DOI meeting” to GDCD.
The Board of Directors of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District had a meeting in Carrington, North Dakota. In the meeting, there was a “Report of Washington, DC, Consulting Firm,” in which “David Bernhardt, Emily Sullivan and Luke Johnson of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, participated in the meeting via conference phone” and “Mr. Bernhardt gave a summary of the DOI meeting.” [“Board of Directors Meeting Minutes,” Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, 04/06/17-04/07/17]
Just days prior to his nomination, on April 17, 2017, Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm had registered to lobby the Department of the Interior on behalf of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District.
In August 2017, Garrison Diversion Conservancy District general manager Duane DeKrey said he expected the district’s project of “moving water from the Missouri River to eastern North Dakota” to “‘get to yes,'” and cited GDCD’s employment of David Bernhardt, who had since been “named deputy secretary of Interior.”
Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck lobbied the Department of the Interior in the second and third quarters of 2017. The lobbying reports filed said that Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck lobbied the Department of Interior on “issues related to water delivery in North Dakota,” on behalf of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District. Luke Johnson, William McGrath, and Emily Sullivan are the lobbyists who have lobbied Department of Interior on behalf of GDCD. [“Second Quarter Lobbying Report for Garrison Diversion Conservancy District,” United States Senate Lobbying Disclosure Database, accessed 11/17/17, and “Third Quarter Lobbying Report for Garrison Diversion Conservancy District,” United States Senate Lobbying Disclosure Database, accessed 11/17/17]
Garrison Diversion Conservancy District officials have met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at least twice in 2017, once in March and once in October. The goal of the October meeting was to “update Zinke on the water project and to garner his support for federal approval of supplying water out of the McClusky Canal for municipal, rural, and industrial uses.” In the meeting, Secretary Zinke said “‘as of today we are taking a fresh look at this project,'” and he “told officials attending the meeting to expect a response from the Department of the Interior in the near future.” One GDCD board member described the meeting with Secretary Zinke as “‘a very good meeting;'” after this meeting, the GDCD expects that the diversion project will receive approval from the federal government.
In March 2017, after David Bernhardt was already rumored to be nominated for Deputy Secretary of the Interior, “Duane DeKrey, general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District” and “other Garrison Diversion officials were in Washington, D.C…. to talk with the North Dakota congressional delegation and officials with the U.S. Department of the Interior.” “DeKrey said conversations with Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior Department, went well.” There is no mention of DeKrey or GDCD officials meeting with Secretary Zinke in Zinke’s March calendar on the Department of Interior website. [Robin Bravender, “Bush-era official seen as front-runner for No. 2 slot,” Greenwire, 01/30/17, Keith Norman, “Moving water across Nd,” Red River Valley Water Supply Project,” 03/25/17, and Ryan Zinke March Calendar, Department of Interior, accessed 11/20/17]
On October 25, 2017, officials with the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District had a meeting with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The meeting was “orchestrated” by Congressman Kevin Cramer. The goal of the meeting was to “update Zinke on the water project and to garner his support for federal approval of supplying water out of the McClusky Canal for municipal, rural, and industrial uses.” In the meeting, Secretary Zinke said “‘as of today we are taking a fresh look at this project,'” and he “told officials attending the meeting to expect a response from the Department of the Interior in the near future.” [Kevin Cramer, Press Release, 10/25/17, Kevin Cramer, Tweet, accessed 11/27/17, and Mike Jacobs, “Jacobs: More work, new life in Garrison project,” WDAY, 08/01/17]
After meeting with Secretary Zinke, the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District now expects “a letter from the federal government approving” the diversion project. Ken Vein, who is on the board of the GDCD, described the October meeting with Zinke as “‘a very good meeting.'” [Patrick Springer, “ND officials: Optimism builds over $1 billion water pipeline to serve Red River Valley, central ND,” WDAY, 11/06/17]
Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Andrea Travnicek, when she worked for North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, said that “‘Everybody knows that getting water to the Red River Valley is important.'”
Andrea Travnicek is currently a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Interior Department. [Department of Interior, Press Release, 07/12/17, and Patrick Springer, “Red River Valley water supply project may stall,” Inforum, 03/21/15]
In August 2017, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt included Eni Petroleum, North America on ethics recusal, writing that, absent a waiver, he would be “recused from particular matters” in which Eni was involved. In November 2017, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement approved Eni’s application to drill in the Arctic, making Eni the first company to get approval for drilling in federal Arctic waters since 2015.
Eni U.S. Operating Co. Inc is the North American subsidiary of Eni Petroleum Co. Inc. [“Company Overview of Eni US Operating Co. Inc,” Bloomberg, accessed 12/21/17]
The Interior Department is currently being sued by the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes for refusing to make a decision on allowing the tribes to open a new casino in Connecticut. The delay in approving the new casino “stands to benefit politically connected gambling giant MGM Resorts International,” which is planning on opening a competing casino nearby. Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt’s old lobbying firm has been lobbying on behalf of an MGM affiliated company.
In September 2017, the Interior Department refused to sign off on the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes’ “plans for a third Connecticut casino.” While “federal law gives Interior just 45 days to issue a yes-or-no verdict after a tribe submits proposed changes to its gaming compact with a state… the department declined to make any decision in this case.” Acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Michael Black wrote in a letter to the tribes that “approving or disapproving the amendment to their gaming compact was ‘premature and likely unnecessary,’ and said Interior had ‘insufficient information’ to make a decision.”
The Interior Department’s delay in approving the new casino “stands to benefit politically connected gambling giant MGM Resorts International.” “The proposed Connecticut casino would sit on non-tribal land just across the border from a billion-dollar casino that MGM is planning in Springfield, Mass.”
The Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes are now suing the Interior Department, in an attempt to “force approval of the contract.” The tribes are “arguing that the law does not allow Interior to refuse to render a verdict.” [Nick Juliano, “Zinke’s agency held up Indians’ casino after MGM lobbying,” Politico, 02/01/18]
MGM Resorts International has been using “Florida-based Trump fundraiser Brian Ballard” and former Interior Secretary Gale Norton as lobbyists. Ballard met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as part of a “social visit” in August 2017. Gale Norton, who, as George W. Bush’s Interior Secretary was current Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason’s former boss, recently got Cason a gig as a keynote speaker at the Colorado Oil & Gas Association’s Annual Energy Summit in Denver in August 2017.
When Interior Associate Deputy Secretary James Cason worked at George W. Bush’s Interior Department, Gale Norton, as Secretary of the Interior, was his boss. Cason has been involved at tribal issues while at Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department. On May 12, Cason sent a “technical guidance letter to the tribes” acknowledging “that the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act provides for a 45-day review period for compact amendments and that the department may disapprove them only for violating the act, other federal laws or trust obligations to the tribes.” This interpretation would seem to indicate that, in May, Interior had “seemed inclined to agree with the tribes’ interpretation of the law.” [Adam Federman, “The Plot to Loot America’s Wilderness,” The Nation, 11/16/17; Nick Juliano, “Zinke’s agency held up Indians’ casino after MGM lobbying,” Politico, 02/01/18]
Sometime prior to August 14, 2017 Gale Norton contacted James Cason about the “opportunity” to attend a Colorado Oil & Gas Association’s 29th Annual Energy Summit in Denver, Colorado on August 23, 2017.
On August 14, 2017, “on the recommendation” of Gale Norton, Colorado Oil & Gas Association sent James Cason received a formal invitation to attend the summit. Rachel McNerney, COGA’s Programs & Administrative Coordinator, said that COGA would be “thrilled” to have Associate Deputy Secretary Cason participate. COGA cced Gale Norton, using her gmail address, on Cason’s invitation. [OS-2017-001063 (Sage Grouse Comms from Industry), Page 425]
Also published on Medium.