It was reported in the Casper Star-Tribune that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had recused himself from a ‘high level Wyoming group’ meeting on sage grouse requested by Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, potentially due to a conflict with former client Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA). The report was based, in part, on public documents Western Values Project (WVP) reviewed from the Department of Interior.
The meeting is the only other known recusal by the conflict-ridden secretary. Bernhardt was previously recused from and was forced to cancel a keynote speaking engagement at a Colorado River District forum because it ‘could raise concerns about a potential conflict of interest.’
Bernhardt thinks there’s one set of ethics rules for him and another set for everyone else,” said Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director at Western Values Project. “We know he made millions as a lobbyist and worked specifically on sage grouse. We know he oversaw the federal sage grouse overhaul and directives to allow oil and gas leasing in critical habitat. It now appears that he selectively recused himself from a sage grouse meeting. You don’t have to be an ethics lawyer to know that Bernhardt systematically bent or broke the rules to suit his and his clients’ needs.”
Bernhardt was tasked with overseeing the federal sage grouse habitat management overall shortly after he was confirmed as deputy secretary in 2017 and he released a plan that de-prioritized critical habitat to allow oil and gas development. His work to undermine sage grouse habitat protections earned him a ‘thank you’ letter from his former client.
Then-assistant deputy secretary Todd Willens’s calendar entry on December 14, 2017, suggests that Bernhardt recused himself from the meeting on sage grouse. The calendar entry shows that Senator Barrasso requested that a “high level WY group coming to DC on the sage grouse issue” meet with David Bernhardt. Recused appears behind the DepSec abbreviation on the calendar entry. The delegation instead met with Willens and Richard Russell, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Staff Director.
The calendar entry said the group was interested in ‘captive breeding.’ Western Values Project revealed that Wyoming oil developer and IPAA Secretary Deimer True had previously pushed Interior for the captive breeding program. Interior confirmed that the secretary did not take the meeting because IPAA is on Bernhardt’s “recusal list.”
But in Bernhardt’s response to questions by the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, he wrote that “I have neither a personal or professional relationship with the IPAA or its employees.” But the association appears on his list of ethics recusals and the notecard he carries with him to avoid conflicts.
IPAA’s political director was caught on tape saying “We know him [Bernhardt] very well, and we have direct access to him, have conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species, to a lot of issues.” His daily cards also show that Bernhardt was scheduled to meet with another member of IPAA, Cimarex Energy, a Denver-based natural gas company. It is unclear if he attended that meeting or was recused, and Interior recently admitted that staff had intentionally left other controversial industry meetings off his public calendar.
The only thing that has been consistent with Bernhardt’s conflicts and ethics recusals is it has been inconsistent and, quite frankly, may have violated the law. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that Secretary Bernhardt has a bucket full of conflicts and inconsistencies that need to be thoroughly investigated,” said O’Neill.
WVP filed suit seeking public documents related to Bernhardt’s ethics recusals that have yet to be released by Interior.
Bernhardt was confirmed by the Senate in what was the least popular Interior Secretary nomination vote in 40 years. More information on the former lobbyist and his conflicts is available at www.davidbernhardt.org.