Trump’s Interior Department Pick Faces Accusations of Ethics Violations

by | Apr 5, 2019

Trump’s Interior Department Pick Faces Accusations of Ethics Violations

(Photo: David Bernhardt at a press call in September 2017. Credit: Bureau of Reclamation, Flickr Creative Commons)

David Bernhardt, President Trump’s pick to lead the Interior Department, is fielding accusations of ethics violations. New documents show Bernhardt continued lobbying for a major client after officially filing legal notice to stop, the New York Times reported.

Trump tapped Bernhardt after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned last year. Bernhardt was a registered lobbyist whose clients included the Westlands Water District in California as well as oil and gas companies before becoming deputy secretary of the Interior Department in 2017.

Documents obtained under California open-records law indicate that Bernhardt invoiced Westlands for travel and services in early 2017, despite filing legal notice in November 2016 ending his status as a lobbyist, New York Times journalist Coral Davenport reported.

“It includes a charge of $2,432.68 for Mr. Bernhardt’s travel, as well as a $25,000 charge ‘for professional services rendered’ in February 2017,” she wrote. “During the previous year, a period when Mr. Bernhardt was an official registered lobbyist, Westlands paid his firm a $25,000 monthly fee.” Emails also discussed Bernhardt attending a “team breakfast” with Westlands officials in April 2017.

Westlands was one of Bernhardt’s main clients between 2011 and 2016, Davenport wrote.

“Bernhardt made it a priority at the Interior Department to promote policies long sought by Westlands, including a weakening of Endangered Species Act protections for a rare fish,” she wrote. “Those changes would have led to the release of vast amounts of water from the delicate ecosystem of the San Francisco Bay Delta for irrigation of commercial farmland.”

Government watchdog experts said the documents raise ethical questions. A spokeswoman for Bernhardt told the New York Times that the Westlands invoice was labeled incorrectly and denied that the documents described lobbying activity.

More Ethics Questions Raised

This week the Washington Post reported that Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, the law and lobbying firm where Bernhardt was employed until 2017, had quadrupled its business since he left.

Recently CNN found that, under Bernhardt, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management approved a higher number of onshore drilling permits and leases for oil and gas companies during the 35-day government shutdown than was previously known.

“Among the companies that submitted applications approved during the shutdown was Bernhardt’s former client Noble Energy, a Houston, Texas-based oil and gas company, which received approval in January for four permits to drill in the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado, according to documents,” CNN journalists wrote.

On Thursday, the Senate Energy Committee voted 14 – 6 to send Bernhardt’s nomination to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.

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