Western Values Project (WVP) filed suit in North Dakota District Court against another former client of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District (GDCD), for failing to fulfill four public records requests, a violation of North Dakota open records law.
WVP submitted the public records requests on August 13, 2018, to the District regarding communications with their former legal advisor-turned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, his former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the Department of the Interior and North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer. Under the North Dakota opens record manual, the District, a public entity, ‘must respond within a reasonable time by providing the requested records or explaining why the request is not being satisfied.’ After eight months, none of the requests have been fulfilled, a violation of North Dakota law.
“We are seeing a pattern develop with Secretary Bernhardt’s former clients: they stonewall public records requests while receiving favorable departmental decisions that Bernhardt may have been involved in, contrary to his ethics pledge and the law,” said Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger. “These public documents play a vital role in the ongoing investigation into Bernhardt and should be immediately released. The continued obfuscation of public records laws by the Secretary’s former clients only reaffirms the appearance of swampy dealings being orchestrated behind closed doors.”
Before joining the Trump administration at Interior, Bernhardt provided legal services to the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which was listed on his ethics recusal pledge that has since expired.
Bernhardt had been under contract with the District until at least January 2016 before they officially hired his old lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS), two months later “to assist with” the Red River Valley Water Supply Plan (RRVWSP), according to previously available meeting minutes that have since been removed (see here and here). Meeting minutes from February 26, 2016, referencing Bernhardt’s retainer, have also been removed from the District’s website.
Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck registered to lobby on behalf of the District on April 12, 2017, on “issues related to water delivery in North Dakota,” including lobbying two political appointees at the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Reclamation.
In October 2017, two months after Bernhardt became deputy secretary, the District had a meeting with former Secretary Ryan Zinke, in which Zinke promised to take “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 board member described the meeting with Secretary Zinke as “a very good meeting.”
Meeting minutes from January 12, 2018, confirmed the board’s decision to increase BHFS retainer from $3,500 to $10,000 per month in part because ‘the value that the firm brings back to Garrison Diversion and managing risk, in addition to the contacts they have, has been mutually beneficial…’
In a letter to the district, BHFS referenced their high-level connections in Washington, D.C., writing that ‘many of the decision makers in the agencies are former coworkers and colleagues. These relationships are going to be vital to approval and completion of the RRVWSP.’
In September 2018, Interior issued a press release on behalf of the Bureau of Reclamation announcing the completion for the Environmental Assessment and a ‘Finding of No Significant Impact for the Central North Dakota Water Supply Project,’ allowing the controversial plan to tap water from the Missouri River to move forward.
WVP’s public records requests to Garrison Diversion Conservancy District:
Interior’s internal watchdog opened an ethics investigation into Bernhardt just four days after his confirmation, following a series of reports about Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest and lobbying violations. Bernhardt’s confirmation received the lowest level of senatorial approval in history. More information on the former lobbyist and his conflicts is available at www.davidbernhardt.org.