Lawsuit Filed Seeking Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s Communications with Former Clients

Interior Officials Violated FOIA Law by Stonewalling Public Information Request

Today, American Oversight filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Case No. 19-2527, on behalf of Western Values Project for public documents related to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s communications with his former clients, after Interior failed to fulfill a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request within the statutorily allowed timeframe. Bernhardt, former mega-lobbyist and Trump’s most conflicted cabinet member, has some 26 known conflicts of interests before the department he oversees. During his tenure, he has become the subject of a multifaceted ethics investigation regarding his role in decisions that have benefited his former clients.

View the public records request here. View the suit here.

“Since day one, David Bernhardt set his sights on doing the bidding of his former lobbying firm and special interest clients at the expense of our public lands. We already know that Bernhardt is under investigation for skirting ethics laws, but it remains to be seen just how deep the corruption goes,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project Executive Director. “This public information request should have been fulfilled within the legally required timeline, but this lawsuit will help uncover what Bernhardt and his political cronies are trying to hide from the public.”

“Members of the Trump administration have gone to extreme lengths to conceal and deny their relationships with the businesses and industries they are supposed to regulate,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “The public has a right to know if Secretary Bernhardt’s former clients have been granted special influence over decision making at the Interior Department.”

Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the powerful Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck firm, was required to recuse himself from ‘particular matters’ dealing with all of his former clients over a two-year period under ethics rules instituted by President Trump — meant to curb the influence of special interests and D.C.’s infamous revolving door with lobbyists. However, in addition to the ethics investigation, Western Values Project (WVP) has detailed many of the inconsistencies within Bernhardt’s recusal period, including some that may have violated ethics laws and rules. One independent source counts more than a dozen scandals related to Bernhardt’s conduct at Interior and another has documented at least 70 internal meetings between Interior political appointees and Bernhardt’s former clients. 

Public documents obtained by the Guardian and released today reveal that Bernhardt has been advocating for a major energy project that would transport fracked natural gas through Oregon. Bernhardt’s work on the project, proposed by Canadian energy giant Pembina, is likely in violation of his ethics pledge, given that Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm is representing Pembina and lobbying directly on behalf of the pipeline project.   

Strikingly, after analyzing ten of thousands of Interior documents, WVP uncovered only seven emails sent by Bernhardt. The FOIA submitted by WVP on Bernhardt’s communications with former clients seeks access to and copies of all emails, Bison Connect messages, Google chat messages, text messages, WhatsApp messages, Signal messages, faxes, Facebook messages, Microsoft Lync message, Twitter direct messages, or any and all messages delivered by hand or by courier. 

Join the effort to strengthen the American West.