Who has been running the Interior Department while Secretary Ryan Zinke has been out of the office for the last three weeks? Meet Interior’s #2: Zinke’s dirty Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt.
Last year, Bernhardt made headlines after being nominated for being second-in-command at the largest land managing agency in the federal government. The controversy surrounding his nomination was in part ignited because he was a test case for the swampy revolving-door Potomac politics that President Trump had promised to drain. After serving as scandal-plagued Interior Solicitor in the George W. Bush administration, Bernhardt became a top natural resource lobbyist for extractive industries.
The Senate confirmed Bernhardt for one of the top posts at Interior despite his glaring conflicts of interest. Many of those conflicts have been covered and continue to be documented by watchdog groups like Western Values Project (WVP). Just weeks ago, WVP and Democracy Forward were forced to sue the Department of the Interior for failing to release public documents regarding decisions in which Bernhardt was involved and communications relating to his former clients after WVP’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests went unfulfilled.
Every Trump administration appointee is required to sign an ethics pledge, in which they promise to, “not for a period of 2 years” from the date of their appointment, “participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients.” And although David Bernhardt signed an ethics recusal in which he promised to recuse himself from particular matters involving his former clients until August 3, 2019, WVP has found blatant instances in which he and the Interior Department have been involved in helping his former clients.
Undermining Wildlife Protections
David Bernhardt was charged with overseeing the greater sage-grouse management plans overhaul shortly after his controversial confirmation. If the sage-grouse plans get diluted as requested by extractive corporations, critical habitat would no longer be a consideration in leasing decisions, ultimately opening up vast swaths of public lands to those same corporations for industrial development. The Bureau of Land Management issued six Instructional Memorandums to state offices that among other things de-prioritize critical sage grouse habitat.
After Interior rolled back protections across the West, the Independent Petroleum Association of America — which appears on Bernhardt’s list of recusals — joined in a thank you letter addressed to Bernhardt for his efforts that benefited the oil and gas industry.
Moreover, the second largest and seventh largest leaseholders of sage-grouse habitat in Colorado, SandRidge Exploration and Production LLC, and Bill Barrett Corporation, respectively, both used Bernhardt’s old lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, to lobby the federal government while Bernhardt worked there. Denbury Onshore LLC, the fourth largest leaseholder of sage grouse habitat in Montana, also used Bernhardt’s lobbying firm while he lobbied there.
Undermining the cooperative sage-grouse plans may foreshadow the oil and gas industry’s long-standing dream – the wholescale rollback of the Endangered Species Act; and it appears that Bernhardt is taking the lead.
Drilling in the Arctic and Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge
In August 2017, David Bernhardt included Eni Petroleum, North America, on his ethics recusal, writing that, absent a waiver, he would be “recused from particular matters” in which Eni was involved.
Just three months later, in November 2017, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, an Interior agency, approved Eni’s application to drill in the Arctic, making Eni the first company to get approval for drilling in federal Arctic waters since 2015.
In December 2017, Interior spokesperson Heather Swift boasted to an Anchorage Daily News reporter that Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) employees were working through Christmas to approve an application by Eni Petroleum to drill in the Arctic. Swift said that the well “could raise millions,” adding, “Wouldn’t that be a nice Christmas present!?!?”
Bernhardt has also promised the oil and gas industry swift action on drilling opportunities in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge after he previously lost a suit to open the refuge to drilling, claiming that he would now ‘move very, very quickly on that project’ to expedite the permitting process.
Western Water Wars
While working as a lobbyist at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Bernhardt was co-chair of Brownstein’s natural resources department alongside Scott Slater, the CEO of Cadiz Inc., a Southern California company that is attempting to pump billions of gallons of groundwater a year and pipe it across the Mojave Desert to sell to cities in Southern California. In order for the controversial project to succeed, Cadiz Inc. requires permits from Interior.
In October 2017, the Bureau of the Land Management reversed an Obama-era guidance that had been a major obstacle for the Cadiz project. The change of administrative opinion could make millions for Cadiz Inc. Additionally, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck has already earned 200,000 shares of Cadiz stock for its involvement with the company and stands to earn another 200,000 if the project is completed.
Another former Bernhardt client, the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District (GDCD) is “spearheading” a project to “diver[t] Missouri River water to supplement water supplies in the Red River Valley,” a project that environmentalists have long bemoaned.
In October 2017, two months after Bernhardt became Deputy Secretary, GDCD had a meeting with Secretary Zinke, in which Zinke promised to take “‘a fresh look at this project,'” and he “told officials attending the meeting to expect a response from the Department of the Interior in the near future.” One GDCD board member described the meeting with Secretary Zinke as “‘a very good meeting;'” after this meeting, the GDCD expects that the diversion project will receive approval from the federal government. North Dakota Congressional Representative Kevin Cramer has also met with Secretary Zinke to discuss the project.
The District was so impressed by Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm’s newfound access to top Interior officials that they nearly tripled the retainer paid to Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck to $10,000 per month.
Most recently, Secretary Zinke has put Bernhardt in charge of overseeing a new Bureau of Reclamation project to explore “methods of moving more water south.” Bernhardt’s former lobbying client, Westlands Water District, has welcomed the proposed project.
For his first year in office, Bernhardt promised to recuse himself from decisions affecting Westlands and his other former clients. However, the recusal ended August 2, 2018. The short term of Bernhardt’s recusal is perplexing considering the Trump administration makes political appointees vow a two-year ethics pledge.
Covering Up Russian Ties
In April 2017, just days after media reports of Bernhardt lobbying for Access Industries, a company run by Leonard Blavatnik, Ukrainian-born oligarch who made billions doing business with newly sanctioned Russian oligarchs, five amendments were filed to Access Industries’ lobbying reports to remove Bernhardt’s name from the reports.
The unamended lobbying reports for Access Industries show that Bernhardt was a lobbyist for the company from the 2nd quarter of 2011 through the 2nd quarter of 2012. However, on April 25 and April 26, 2017, amendments were filed with the Senate to remove Bernhardt from those disclosures. However, he is still listed as a lobbyist for Access Industries in their initial lobbying report, and no amendment appears to have been filed to remove him from it.
Dirty Casino Deal
In September 2017, the Interior Department refused make a decision on the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes’ plans to open a new casino in Connecticut. While “federal law gives Interior just 45 days to issue a yes-or-no verdict after a tribe submits proposed changes to its gaming compact with a state… the department declined to make any decision in this case.”
Interior’s non-decision that has benefitted MGM Resorts International, a competing casino company, as the tribes proposed casino would be just across the border “from a billion-dollar casino that MGM is planning in Springfield, Mass.”
Meanwhile, Bernhardt’s old lobbying firm has been lobbying on behalf of MGM Public Policy LLC “on issues including gaming.” MGM Public Policy LLC is “an affiliated company” of MGM Resorts International.
The issues listed above are just a sample of Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest that Western Values Project has uncovered so far. There are other troubling accounts that date back to his time as Interior Solicitor in the George W. Bush administration regarding casinos, retaliation against whistleblowers, millions in lost tax royalties and convicted felon ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. A recently released report, The Favor Factory, provides more analysis on Bernhardt’s apparent conflict-of-interest issues as Interior Deputy Secretary.
What we do know is that Deputy David Bernhardt has been involved in many policy and personnel decisions at Interior since assuming his post last year. While WVP has examined over 50,000 public documents released by Interior, only one email has been sent by Bernhardt, raising serious questions as to how decisions that impact our public lands, national parks, and wildlife are being made and for whom. Stay tuned.