The New York Times reports that deputy secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the department after the resignation of Ryan Zinke, kept lobbying for a major client—one whose interests he’s pushed over the past few years—”several months” after he filed official papers saying he’d stopped lobbying. This, to be clear, is not allowed.
Per the Times (emphasis mine):
The bill for Mr. Bernhardt’s services, dated March 2017 and labeled “Federal Lobbying,” shows, along with other documents, Mr. Bernhardt working closely with the Westlands Water District as late as April 2017, the month Mr. Trump nominated him to his current job, deputy interior secretary. In November 2016, Mr. Bernhardt had filed legal notice with the federal government formally ending his status as lobbyist.
Bernhardt’s department is pushing back on the report. “Mr. Bernhardt engaged in various legal services that supported the senior employees and Directors of the Board of Westlands Water District, who are public officials, operating in their official capacity,” Interior press secretary Faith Vander Voort told the Times in an email. “These efforts do not constitute regulated lobbying activity.”
As the Times noted in a February story, however, one of Bernhardt’s focuses during his time at the Interior Department has been weakening the Endangered Species Act. Conveniently, this was also a focus of his years-long lobbying efforts for Westlands, which provides water to hundreds farms in California’s San Joaquin Valley, as well as representing their interests as a lobbying entity.
Westlands’ lobbying efforts at the federal level, spearheaded by Bernhardt from 2011 to 2016, have helped it obtain sweetheart deals in the past, such as a 2015 agreement with the federal government protecting the district from water cutbacks as well as canceling a $350 million debt the district owed to the federal government. To make matters worse on that front, Bernhardt has also spent years of his career lobbying for Big Oil.
As my colleague Nick Martin wrote when Bernhardt’s nomination was announced, his role at the Department of the Interior would also include managing public lands and the overseeing the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Given the sheer number of ethical conflicts that have plagued the Trump cabinet, including the Interior Department itself under Bernhardt’s predecessor, it’s almost like they’re going out of their way to find the worst people for the job. During a heated hearing last week, Sen. Ron Wyden told Bernhardt: “You’re just another corrupt official.”
Nevertheless, Bernhardt’s nomination sailed through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee this morning 14-6, with support from Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Martin Heinrich. Great job y’all.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Indian Health Service (IHS) as being an agency under the purview of the Department of the Interior. The IHS is an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services.