When David Bernhardt joined the Trump Administration, he was required to recuse himself from work he had done as a mega-lobbyist and advisor to entities regulated by the Interior Department. A new 50-page report by Western Values Project chronicles how Bernhardt has systematically undermined his very own ethics pledge and, at times, treated the Department of the Interior more like a private lobbying firm than an advocate for America’s public lands. The report titled “The Curious Case of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s Recusals,” details many of the inconsistencies within Bernhardt’s recusal period, including some that may have violated ethics laws and rules, and the boon it’s been for the vast majority of his 26 former clients at the expense of America’s public lands and wildlife.
“The fact is that Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s ethics pledge wasn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Now that the remainder of his recusals are set to expire, it doesn’t give him a license to do more favors for special interests or his former clients,” said Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger. “This isn’t his lobbying firm, it’s the Department of the Interior. Bernhardt should be there to serve the American people and protect our public lands. Just like Zinke before him, Bernhardt will continue to be held accountable for his corruption and ethical transgressions.”
As detailed in the report, Bernhardt was supposed 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. The former mega-lobbyist had a hard time following Trump’s ethics rules. For example, all of Bernhardt’s recusals should expire at the same time — on August 3, 2019 — but inexplicably, some expired a year earlier. Neither Bernhardt nor Interior ethics officials have been able to explain this or any other inconsistencies involving Bernhardt.
Interior’s watchdog began a multi-faceted ethics investigation into Bernhardt’s shady and potentially illegal conduct just four days after his confirmation as secretary. One independent source counts more than a dozen scandals related to Bernhardt’s conduct at Interior. This may be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Bernhardt’s ethical lapses.
Bernhardt, the former top legal officer for then-Interior Secretary Gail Norton during the Jack Abramoff scandal, is well versed in trying to skirt ethics rules and laws. Strikingly, after analyzing ten of thousands of Interior documents, WVP uncovered only seven emails sent by Bernhardt.
His lack of communication hasn’t stopped his subordinates from doing a lot of his dirty work. Another watchdog group identified some 70 internal meetings between Interior political appointees and Bernhardt’s former clients. WVP found that at least 10 meetings between lobbyists from Brownstein Farber Hyatt Schreck (BFHS) – Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm – and Interior political appointees have occurred. After Bernhardt’s secret calendar was discovered, it became clear that even Bernhardt met with at least one of the former clients he was supposed to be recused from dealing with.
That access has been a goldmine not only for Bernhardt’s former clients but also for his old lobbying firm, BHFS. The lobbying firm quadrupled its business during his tenure at Interior and most recently posted a $10 million revenue haul in a single quarter.
The report documents these instances of Bernhardt’s recusal period as well as other curious cases, plus some of the sweetheart deals benefiting his former clients and special interests – always at the expense of America’s public lands. While Bernhardt’s final recusals may be expiring, damage to our public lands and wildlife has already been done.
WVP strongly opposed Bernhardt’s nomination for deputy secretary and secretary, labeling him the ‘ultimate DC swamp creature.’ The group launched the website DavidBernhardt.org prior to his confirmation as secretary and have been detailing the culture of corruption within Interior at the DepartmentofInfluence.org.