ICYMI: Watchdog Group Calls for Ethics Investigation into Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt

E&E News is reporting that ethics watchdog Campaign for Accountability (CFA) submitted a complaint yesterday, February 19, to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Interior Inspector General (IG) and Interior’s Designated Ethics Office asking them to open an investigation into Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s relationship with Westlands Water District, a California water district and one of Bernhardt’s former clients.

The complaint follows a recent New York Times story that found Bernhardt had been directing subordinates to roll back endangered species protections for the Delta Smelt and the Chinook Salmon, policy changes that directly favor Westlands Water District. Previously, Bernhardt was a lobbyist for Westlands, representing the district on these particular issues. The district is included on his extensive list of recusals that he is prohibited from working on at Interior.

CFA’s compliant states that “Mr. Bernhardt’s actions directing the Bureau of Reclamation to review environmental protections for the smelt and the Chinook salmon, for which he lobbied before joining Interior, may have violated ethics rules.” It continues, “Mr. Bernhardt appears to have violated the ethics pledge by working on a particular matter in a specific issue area as a public official within two years of lobbying on the issue.”  

“If the Trump administration is moving forward with an ex-lobbyist as conflicted as David Bernhardt to manage America’s public lands, wildlife and national parks at Interior, the public needs to know if he’s handing out favors to his former special interest clients,” said Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director of Western Values Project. “Releasing the public documents we’ve requested regarding Bernhardt’s communication with his former clients and a formal investigation into his efforts to carry water for Westlands may be the only way to get to the bottom of what appears to be a clear violation of his presidential ethics pledge.”

According to the New York Times story, Bernhardt began working on the issue after a mere four months on the job, which would be well within the prohibited two-year timeframe of his ethics pledge. Westlands Water District even appears on Bernhardt’s note card of recusals, which he carries around with him in his pocket that he is supposed to use to remind him of his conflicts. It appears that he failed to reference his note card on this matter.

The complaint also follows a suit filed on behalf of Western Values Project (WVP), under the Freedom of Information Act in July 2018, seeking communication between Bernhardt and his former clients that Interior has failed to release. Due to Interior’s unwillingness to release Bernhardt’s public communications and documents, watchdog groups have been unable to determine whether this or other violations of the ethics pledge have occurred.

Rolling back protections for the Delta Smelt and the Chinook Salmon is hardly Bernhardt’s first push to implement policy changes that benefit a former client. Late last year, WVP launched davidbernhardt.org, a website that details Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest and highlights instances of Interior policies he has worked on that benefit his former clients.  CFA’s call for an ethics investigation comes as Bernhardt is awaiting his formal nomination to be Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary and Senate confirmation. Thus far, only a February 4, 2019 tweet by President Trump acknowledged Bernhardt’s nomination.

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