In a visit to California’s Central Valley today, President Trump is following swiftly in the footsteps of former mega-lobbyist turned-Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt, and is expected to sign a ceremonial water order that would pave the way for a controversial water giveaway in California. Few seem to support the move, aside from one notable special interest: the powerful Westlands Water District – a former client of Sec. Bernhardt’s.
“The writing is on the wall that this is the start of the Trump administration’s wholesale public asset giveaway to powerful special interests, paving the way for further public asset and public lands sell-offs,” said Jayson O’Neill, Deputy Director of Western Values Project. “No one has worked harder for his former industry and corporate clients than Secretary Bernhardt, and President Trump not only condones this sort of corruption, he openly embraces it. This is malfeasance in broad daylight.”
President Trump’s visit follows a forum on California water headlined by Sec. Bernhardt and Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA). Sec. Bernhardt’s remarks yesterday foreshadowed additional actions the Trump administration plans to take for Valley irrigators and water districts, including Westlands.
A video recently acquired by Western Values Project — an Accountable.US project based in Montana, defending America’s public lands — showcases Brenda Burman, the Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner, speaking to the main goals of the Trump administration: to hand over public assets to special interests and to categorically exclude projects from National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review.
Unsurprisingly, the architect behind the Trump administration’s recent drastic changes to NEPA was at least in part Sec. Bernhardt. Once again, the likely reasoning behind his efforts is that several of his former lobbying clients, including the powerful Westlands Water District, stand to benefit. Bernhardt is still under investigation for his involvement in decisions impacting Westlands. After just four months on the job, Bernhardt had a biological opinion altered to benefit Westlands that was in violation of ethics rules and Trump’s ethics pledge.
Emails obtained by Western Values Project through a California open records request exemplified the close lobbying relationship between Bernhardt and Westlands. In response to a press release announcing the nomination of now Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation Brenda Berman, Westland’s Johnny Amaral sent an email to Bernhardt that said, “Dream Team… With Bernhardt as QB.” During his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt claimed that ‘you want your ‘A’ quarterback playing for your team’ as reasoning for no longer adhering to his recusals.
Sec. Bernhardt has long been heralded as the Trump administration’s most conflicted cabinet member. While the last of his supposed “recusals” expired in August 2019, he has repeatedly been involved in and sided with his former clients on particular matters, including decisions that grossly benefited the powerful Westlands Water District. Now, Pres. Trump is taking note and doing the same.