ICYMI: Bernhardt Cancels Speech at Eleventh Hour for Unknown Ethics Reasons

Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who was supposed to give the keynote speech at the Colorado River District’s forum tomorrow, had to cancel at the eleventh hour due to ethics concerns raised by Interior Department officials, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reports.

According to the article, Bernhardt, who had been scheduled to speak at the event for weeks, canceled his speech following an apparent review of the event by Interior ethics officials. His speech at the seminar on “interstate Colorado River issues” could have been seen as a conflict of interest, according to the article. Bernhardt previously worked for the major Colorado lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.

The Interior Department would not explain to the Daily Sentinel what ethics issues the appearance would have raised. Western Values Project found that Bernhardt’s former firm, which appears on his list of ethics recusals, represents the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD), entities which both have a potential interest in actions taken by the district.

“If Deputy Secretary Bernhardt doesn’t even know what events he can commit to without violating ethics rules, then he can’t be trusted to run an agency that does business with a host of his former clients who stand to potentially benefit from his decisions,” said Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger. “This episode also calls into question the multitude of departmental policies and decisions he has overseen, and industry meetings and other events he has attended since he was sworn in as Deputy Secretary last year. It appears that Deputy Secretary Bernhardt is so deep in the swamp he doesn’t even know where it starts or ends.”

Tomorrow’s cancellation is hardly the first time Deputy Secretary Bernhardt has found himself in an ethical gray area. Just earlier this week, he spoke at the conservative Heritage Foundation about reforming the Endangered Species Act (ESA), a policy change that would stand to benefit many of his former clients. As a lobbyist, he represented Westlands Water District, a California water district that sought to weaken the Endangered Species Act.  

He also oversaw the Interior Department’s sage-grouse review last summer. The review is the Interior Department’s attempt to roll back the largest cooperative conservation habitat initiative in American history. Before becoming Deputy Secretary, Bernhardt represented special interest groups seeking to weaken protections for sage-grouse, and two of the top ten leaseholders of sage-grouse habitat in the state of Colorado have used BHFS to lobby the federal government.

A Western Values Project analysis of documents obtained through public records requests found that one former Bernhardt client in particular, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, frequently communicated with Interior officials conducting the review with requests about what they wanted the outcome to be. In March, IPAA also thanked Bernhardt for his efforts that benefited the oil and gas industry.

Western Values Project has extensively documented these and other instances of former clients of Deputy Secretary Bernhardt benefitting from Interior decisions, none of which have been publicly analyzed by Interior’s ethics office.

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