February 28, 2019

Senators Warren and Blumenthal Investigate Interior Nominee and Former Lobbyist David Bernhardt's Conflicts of Interest

Senators Seek Inspector General Review Amid Reports that Bernhardt May Have Violated Ethics Rules To Benefit a Former Client

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) today sent a letter to the Designated Agency Ethics Official, Scott de la Vega, at the U.S. Department of the Interior Ethics Office (DEO) and to the Deputy Inspector General, Mary Kendall, at the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General, expressing concern over conflicts of interest and potential ethics violations by David Bernhardt, the Acting Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI), who is reportedly directly involved in Department decisions that roll back long-standing protections for endangered wildlife and benefit one of his former clients. President Donald Trump has nominated Acting Secretary Bernhardt to serve as Secretary of the Interior, and the senators' questions come as he awaits Senate confirmation hearings.

Under Acting Secretary Bernhardt's leadership, the DOI announced on December 29, 2017, the release of new rules that weaken federal protections in the Central Valley Project, and, earlier this month on February 4, 2019, a report determining how water diversion in the area will take place. Both actions will directly benefit the Westlands Water District, a former client Bernhardt represented as a lobbyist prior to his agency appointment in 2017 as Deputy Secretary of the Interior.

The Los Angeles Times reported in July 2017 that Acting Secretary Bernhardt's former clients, including the Westlands Water District, paid his firm millions to lobby on their behalf. His work for the nation's largest irrigation district ranged from drafting letters and executive orders to personally arguing an appeals case.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that as acting secretary, Bernhardt has played a prominent role in Department proposals to eliminate Endangered Species Act rules that protect California's delta smelt and the Chinook salmon. Just months into his position at the Interior Department, he supported efforts to reroute river water in the San Francisco Bay Delta, which endangers the habitat of these two species, to benefit the local agricultural industry.
As a federal employee, Acting Secretary Bernhardt signed a pledge under federal ethics law that restricts federal employees' involvement in matters in which they have a conflict of interest. He also signed an ethics pledge that President Trump required of "every appointee in every executive agency appointed on or after January 20, 2017."

In doing so, Acting Secretary Bernhardt recused himself from matters concerning 26 former clients, including Westlands Water District. However, he may have violated this agreement when he reportedly received a "verbal approval" by Interior ethics officials to draft a new plan for managing federal and state water supplies because his recent lobbying efforts on behalf of Westlands Water District -- though focused only on passing a specific provision targeting smelt and salmon -- was viewed "technically" to be part of a broad water bill.

"As the acting head of a major government agency, it is incumbent upon Mr. Bernhardt to be held to the highest standards of ethical conduct and to avoid any appearance of impropriety, including the perception that he has given his former client an unfair advantage and favorable treatment in the formulation of government policy," the senators wrote. "These concerns are heightened when they involve contentious matters on which he previously lobbied and received financial remuneration and that could result in a controversial outcome."

Given the questions about conflicts of interest, the senators have requested information on how the Department advises Acting Secretary Bernhardt regarding these potential conflicts and ensures that he follows this advice and abides by federal ethics requirements. The senators also wrote to the Interior Department Inspector General to ask for an investigation of Acting Secretary Bernhardt's role in Department rulemakings that affect his former clients.

Last year, Senator Warren introduced the Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, a sweeping bill that would crack down on all forms of influence peddling and corruption. The bill would prevent former oil lobbyists, like Acting Secretary Bernhardt, from running federal agencies, including those responsible for protecting our environment and interior.