House Republican Oversight and Reform Committee members Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) released a ‘staff report’ yesterday that confirmed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt met with another former oil and gas client in violation of the Trump ethics pledge. The ‘report’ confirmed that Bernhardt met with a division of the U.S. Oil and Gas Association (USOGA), which was one of Bernhardt’s former clients that appears on his now-expired list of recusals.
“Bernhardt has skirted his ethics pledge time and time again to benefit his former clients at the expense of America’s public lands. This latest report by House Oversight Committee Republicans only confirms more ethical misgivings by Bernhardt that need a full and thorough investigation,” said Chris Saeger, Executive Director of Western Values Project. “The report only confirms that Bernhardt continues to use Interior as his own personal lobby firm.”
In addition to the admission that Bernhardt violated his ethics pledge by meeting with the Louisiana MidContinent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA), a division of USOGA, the report is full of skewed facts, leaving many questions unanswered.
The report claims that the basis for the investigation was a single statement by Deputy Chief FOIA Rachel Specter during her March 13 testimony in front of the Oversight and Reform Committee. [Minority Interim Staff Report, pg. 5-6]
This investigation was opened because Secretary Bernardt’s public schedule omits critical details about his meetings, including the identity of attendees or discussion topics. An analysis of Bernhardt’s calendars for August 2017 through December 2018 revealed more than 150 entries that failed to include either a description of the meeting topic or the identity of non-DOI attendees, including 98 entries described as “External Meeting.” [Department of Interior Calendars, accessed 05/08/19; CNN, 3/8/19]
For example, his calendar lists meetings such as:
In April 2019, it was revealed that Bernhardt’s staff had been maintaining a daily schedule in Google documents, and overwriting it each day. When these daily schedules were recovered and released to the public, they showed a host of unreported industry meetings. [Roll Call, 04/16/19]
As Deputy Secretary, Bernhardt was “known for covering his tracks, limiting the paper trail showing his exact role in decisions that benefit his former clients.” [Mother Jones, 12/21/18]
Prior to this investigation by the House, Interior had failed to respond to multiple FOIA requests seeking records about Secretary Bernhardt’s correspondence with former clients. And even after this House investigation was opened, Bernhardt initially refused to allow Interior employees to be interviewed. [Western Values Project, 7/30/18; US News, 05/07/19]
The report concludes that there is no evidence that Interior staff tasked with scheduling for Secretary Bernhardt “deleted” or “altered” anything on his calendars. The report also claims that in order to ensure full compliance with his ethics obligations, Bernhardt does not allow any changes to participants after the meeting has been set. [Minority Interim Staff Report, pg. 1; Minority Interim Staff Report, pg. 13]
This finding ignores the possibility that meetings with former lobbying clients may never have been added to one of Bernhardt’s five differing calendars to begin with. With five contradictory schedules, it’s unclear which calendar should be used to hold Bernhardt accountable. [CNN, 6/5/2019]
Samantha Hebert testified that the protocol to exclude late additions from meetings wasn’t put in place until Bernhardt became Acting Secretary of the Interior, meaning his former clients could have attended meetings as undocumented “walk-ins” from his appointment as deputy secretary in August 2017 until his promotion to acting secretary in January 2019. [Minority Interim Staff Report, pg. 14]
Bernhardt aide Gareth Reese testified that he carries Bernhardt’s ethics recusal card around with him. Reese testified that this card contains all the individuals and entities Bernhardt is not supposed to meet with. [Minority Interim Staff Report, pg. 8]
The ethics recusal card released to the public (via FOIA) omits one of Bernhardt’s former energy clients and states incorrect recusal end dates for 21 other former clients. For reasons unclear, only 22 of Bernhardt’s former clients were subject to the two-year ‘cooling-off’ period, while 23 of his former clients were subject up to only a one-year recusal. [WVP, 8/2/19]
The report notes that Secretary Bernhardt’s office uses a meeting request form which allows the ethics office to screen out meetings Bernhardt should not take in order to comply with his recusal obligations. [Minority Interim Staff Report, pg. 9-10]
However, an archive of these approved and denied meeting request forms has never been released to the public (despite FOIA requests for communications between Bernhardt’s office and the ethics office), so Bernhardt’s compliance is impossible to verify.
Even more troubling, Mr. Rees testified that Secretary Bernhardt personally selects or declines meetings he would like to take BEFORE they are sent to the ethics office for approval. [Minority Interim Staff Report, pg. 11]
In practice, this provides a huge loophole for avoiding ethics compliance. If an individual or entity Bernhardt shouldn’t meet with formally requests a meeting, there is nothing stopping him from simply declining the meeting to avoid submitting a screening form for the record and then back-channeling with his former clients anyway, perhaps by asking his political underlings to meet with them in his stead. A 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. [Documented, 3/27/19; WVP, 8/2/19]