Interior Secretary Must Answer To Trump Budget, Ongoing Ethics Investigations, BLM Move

Bernhardt To Defend Indefensible Trump Budget While Other Corruption Questions Loom

Tomorrow, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt will appear before the Senate Appropriations Committee to speak to the Trump administration’s proposed Interior budget, which slashes the department and public lands funding by some 16 percent, including, again, nearly zeroing out the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and proposes cutting some $581 million from the National Park Service. 

“The Trump administration and Secretary Bernhardt are really showing their true colors and values. Following the money, we see where their values lie: special interest corporate bailouts and public lands exploitation,” said Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director of Western Values Project. “Trump’s abysmal budget bails out mining corporations, exploits our shared resources, and undermines America’s public lands and outdoor heritage. Congress should immediately put it in the trumpster fire.”

Unsurprisingly, Interior’s proposed budget seeks to provide for the development of further oil and gas projects on public lands. Trump’s budget also includes some $1.5 billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies for uranium mining corporations. This is not the first time the Trump administration has proposed major cuts to Interior’s funding and zeroing out the LWCF. Just last year, Sec. Bernhardt defended Trump’s budget proposal that tried to gut Interior’s appropriations by some 14 percent. 

Sec. Bernhardt rarely sits down with the press and hasn’t appeared before Congress since May 2019. He is known for avoiding Congressional oversight and accountability efforts by stonewalling public records requests and plowing ahead without Congressional funding, input, or approval. 

This hearing is not only a chance for Congress to demand answers about the disastrous Trump administration budget proposal but from Bernhardt himself, including questions about his ongoing ethics investigation, the controversial Bureau of Land Management (BLM) move, the historic rollbacks to public lands protections, as well as many other outstanding issues before Interior that are impacting America’s wildlife, public lands, and national parks.

Outstanding Questions Secretary Bernhardt Must Answer: 

1. Secretary Bernhardt, are you still under investigation by the Interior’s Inspector General? What is the subject and extent of that investigation? Do you believe that taking action that disproportionately benefited your former lobbying client violated ethics laws and Trump’s ethics pledge? How is it beneficial to taxpayers when you railroad career experts on decisions that favor your former clients? Sec. Bernhardt has long been heralded as the Trump administration’s most conflicted cabinet member. While his supposed “recusalsexpired in August of 2019, he has repeatedly been involved in and sided with his former clients on particular matters, including altering a biological opinion that grossly benefited the powerful Westlands Water District. Bernhardt is still under investigation by Interior’s Inspector General for his involvement in this particular matter and other ethical issues. Just this week, in another big win, Westlands was awarded a massive permanent water contract that diverts California water to be used by wealthy irrigators. In Bernhardt’s questions for the record, he told Senator Cantwell (D-WA) that he was “fully committed to following all ethics laws, regulations, and the ethics pledge.”

2. How much money has the department and the BLM spent so far on the controversial relocation? What programs have Interior and the BLM pulled from to cover the cost of the relocation? The BLM move has long been criticized for lacking a purpose or plan. Interior’s talking points were riddled with political spin, untruths, and misleading points. Congressional funding was allocated but hinged on the promise that Interior provides “regular briefings to lawmakers on the controversial Bureau of Land Management headquarters relocation,” which has not happened. Interior and the BLM already received some $14 million tax dollars for the reorganization and relocation proposal. The department requested an additional $28 million ‘to continue implementing DOI’s vision for a reorganized Department, focusing resources on its new unified regions, moving headquarters staff west, and expanding the use of shared services.’ That funding was not authorized, yet the controversial BLM move and reorganization have plowed forward. 

2(b). Secretary Bernhardt, is it correct that this budget is reducing money allocated for sage grouse conservation by $27.4 million from last year? (p. IV-2). Is it correct that the BLM’s budget is being cut by around $144 million overall? (p. I-8). American taxpayers were told that moving the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction was in an effort to save them money. But fixed costs for office space rental are going up in the president’s 2021 budget proposal. (p. V-124) The BLM is slated to face major cuts across the board, but not in office space rental. Further, the new BLM headquarters is located in the same building as several oil and gas interests including Chevron, Laramie Energy, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. 

3. How can Americans believe you when you say you don’t want to transfer or privatize public land? Will you reject calls from extremists in the West for the wholesale transfer of title or management of federal public lands to the states? Will you commit to American taxpayers to discontinue hosting anti-public lands extremists at Interior facilities? In a recently-obtained video, Myron Ebell, an anti-public lands extremists, spoke at an official Interior event. With top political appointees looking on, Ebell said that the “ultimate solution” was to privatize America’s public lands. Further, Sec. Bernhardt has filled Interior with longtime, anti-public lands advocates like William Perry Pendley and Karen Budd-Falen. His actions have not ensured faith that his goal is to protect America’s public lands – in fact, they’ve achieved the opposite. 

4. How can the Trump administration justify using $1.5 billion in tax dollars to bailout uranium mining corporations when you are slashing national park funding by over $580 million and the department by some 16 percent? Can you commit to upholding the mining withdrawal and protecting the Greater Grand Canyon Area from uranium mining? Will your former client, Ur-Energy, benefit if Congress approves this bailout? Did Interior recommend that the president reduce Bears Ears as a favor to mining interests? Were you aware of the documents indicating the economic benefits of these monuments before the decision was made to shrink the monument? The Trump administration asked Congress for $1.5 billion over 10 years to create a new national stockpile of U.S.-mined uranium. Energy Fuels Inc. (EFI), a foreign uranium mining corporation, has been one of the main mining corporations seeking taxpayer subsidies for uranium mining. In response to the 2020 budget, EFI announced it was selling stock and putting the nearly $17 million in proceeds into its mining operations in Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Texas and elsewhere. EFI spokesman Curtis Moore said they plan on opening a mine about 15 miles from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim entrance. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler represented EFI as a lobbyist. The corporation also helped sell the Trump administration on cutting the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah to open more land up to mining, and oil and gas development. Meanwhile, the Utah BLM, touted the economic and scientific benefits of Utah’s national monuments. Interior’s own recommendation noted that “Comments received were overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining existing monuments.” Ur-Energy, formerly represented by Bernhardt, joined with EFI in petitioning the Trump administration for a uranium import quota that was denied but would ostensibly benefit from the proposed $1.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies.

5. Do you recall writing that you were “aware of no case in which Interior has purposely withheld or improperly delayed the sharing of scientific information with the public where disclosure was appropriate?” Were you aware of efforts to “gin up” figures, insert climate uncertainty language, or alter or suppress science within your department? How much have efforts to suppress or alter science cost American taxpayers? What will you do to assure the American people that the Interior is not wasting taxpayer money to suppress and manipulate science in order to benefit the president’s or your allies in extractive industries? Secretary Bernhardt’s submitted questions for the record prior to Senator Hirono (D-HI) that he wasn’t “aware of no case in which Interior has purposely withheld or improperly delayed the sharing of scientific information with the public where disclosure was appropriate.” Yet, in 2018, director of USGS, James Reilly, appears to have asked scientists to “gin up” emissions figures so that he and other political appointees could “craft a narrative that forest protection efforts are responsible for wildfires, including in California, even as science shows fires are becoming more intense largely because of climate change.” Emails show Interior officials attempting to measure carbon emissions from wildfires so that they could push a false narrative that wildfires cause more carbon pollution than fossil fuels. In 2017, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Katherine MacGregor ordered the acting head of OSMRE to cancel a study examining the health impacts of mountaintop coal mining. MacGregor held at least six meetings with mining interests including the National Mining Association and Arch Coal, a long-time practitioner of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. New reporting also revealed that Interior also promoted a known-climate skeptic to a top position within the department. The Interior official has been inserting inaccurate climate uncertainty language into agency policies and plans.

6. Secretary Bernhardt, President Trump’s budget proposal reduces funding to Interior by 16% overall, but provides almost $2 million in new funding for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) processing and litigation, is that correct? In January, you signed Order No. 3378, which creates a “Departmental FOIA Office,” within the Office of the Solicitor and puts all FOIA personnel under the direct authority of the new office, correct? Why did you decide to create an additional layer of bureaucracy to litigate on overdue FOIAs, rather than putting these resources directly into clearing the FOIA backlog? Order No. 3378 further consolidates the Interior’s FOIA program under a political appointee Solicitor Daniel Jorjani. Further, Interior’s FOIA program is currently under investigation by the Inspector General for allowing political appointees to tamper with FOIA requests. Previously, an NPS FOIA officers’ flagged the difficulties of the political awareness review process and told their superiors that it delayed document production. Western Values Project has been forced to file numerous lawsuits after Interior failed to fulfill public document requests within the statutorily required timeline, including a recent suit for Bernhardt’s communications with his former clients. Litigating public records requests instead of fulfilling them in the statutorily required timeline wastes taxpayer resources.

7. Secretary Bernhardt, do you believe that Solicitor Jorjani has demonstrated the judgment and integrity necessary to effectively oversee the agency’s ethics program? Much of the proposed budget increase from $67 million to $87 million in direct salary and expenses for the Solicitor’s Office would come from consolidating the department’s ethics officers under Solicitor Daniel Jorjani. And while one of the responsibilities of the Ethics Office is to help Interior officials avoid conflicts of interest, Solicitor Jorjani himself, when testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, denied emailing or meeting with his former employers in the Koch Network, but public documents revealed otherwise. He had, in fact, emailed the president of the Charles Koch Foundation, met with the former executive director and Senior Vice President of Freedom Partners as many as four times, and spoke with a top donor to Americans For Prosperity, another Koch entity. Mr. Jorjani also told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that he “typically did not review records prior to their release under the FOIA,” leading to Senator Wyden calling for Jorjani to be investigated by the Justice Department for lying to Congress because of this statement. 

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