Lawsuit Filed Seeking Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s Withheld Communications

Continued Lack of Transparency and Public Record Stonewalling Forced Watchdog to Take Legal Action

Today, American Oversight filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, Case No. 20-594, on behalf of Western Values Project (WVP) — an Accountable.US project based in Montana, defending America’s public lands — for public documents primarily related to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s non-email communications. The suit follows Interior’s continual failure to fulfill public records requests within the statutorily allowed timeframe. 

“Secretary Bernhardt is the most conflicted member of Trump’s cabinet, and he continues to dodge and stonewall public accountability efforts. His office is once again withholding critical public records. Why? Because ex-mega lobbyist David Bernhardt has long-been doing the bidding of his former special interest industry clients by turning Interior into his own personal lobbying shop, allowing them to exploit America’s public lands at taxpayer expense. If the Secretary had nothing to hide, these documents would have been released within the statutorily required timeline,” said Western Values Project Deputy Director Jayson O’Neill.

“Secretary Bernhardt’s protestations that he has abided by ethics rules ring hollow when he refuses to cooperate with straightforward congressional oversight requests. The time for trusting the Secretary’s word has passed; we need to see evidence of whether and to what extent his extensive roster of former clients has shaped his official conduct,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight. 

View the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests here. View the suit here.

After WVP completed a comprehensive analysis of FOIA’s previously received from Interior, the group found only 58 of the 27,375 documents within their database to be emails written by Sec. Bernhardt, suggesting that the Department is withholding key documents, emails and other forms of communication by Secretary. All 27,375 documents were made public by WVP here. Given the lack of email communications, Bernhardt must be coordinating and managing the department through other channels. Recently, Bernhardt has been retorting to public concerns and communicating on Twitter via his iPhone. 

Sec. Bernhardt has a long history of shielding himself from public scrutiny and accountability efforts. When he was asked to release his supposedly “public” calendars, Interior offered five different and inconsistent versions. Sec. Bernhardt’s publicly released calendars have since lacked important details, often only describing his meetings as either ‘internal’ or ‘external.’

The general lack of transparency within the Trump administration has found a home within Interior. Sec. Bernhardt, a highly-conflicted former mega-lobbyist, touts some 26 known conflicts of interests that have pending issues currently before the department he oversees. Bernhardt is still the subject of a multifaceted ethics investigation regarding his role in decisions that have benefited his former clients.

Interior is presently embroiled in a separate ethics battle after WVP first identified Interior’s political awareness ‘review’ process of public document requests in March 2019. Interior political appointees are allowed to view public documents requests before they are released to the public, media, or watchdogs. WVP has submitted a series of public records requests to determine if previous requests had been subjected to the newly established ‘review’ process. The political review process is currently under investigation by Interior’s internal watchdog. 

WVP previously filed a similar lawsuit against Interior for Sec. Bernhardt’s communications with his former clients. 

Join the effort to strengthen the American West.