Several former clients of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s top deputy, David Bernhardt, began receiving “sudden and dramatic windfalls” only months after the former industry lobbyist was sworn in as deputy last August, according to a new lawsuit.
In its lawsuit, the Western Values Project contends the Department of the Interior is refusing to hand over internal documents that may help explain why Bernhardt’s former lobbying clients received regulatory and policy decisions in their favor.
On Monday, Democracy Forward filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department — on behalf of the Western Values Project — for failing to release documents related to Bernhardt under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The Western Values Project has been seeking information on whether Bernhardt — who has been described as a “walking conflict of interest” — has complied with ethics requirements, including a pledge he made to recuse himself from working on matters involving his former lobbyist clients.
“Bernhardt’s past lobbyist exploits reach far and wide,” Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger said Monday in a statement. “Now the same special interests who have business before Interior are seeing their projects move forward, while public records requests go unanswered.”
The Western Values Project, based in Whitefish, Montana, is a nonprofit group that focuses on protecting the environment and defending public lands in the western United States.
In its lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Western Values Project asked the court to order the Interior Department to conduct searches related to its FOIA requests and require the department to produce the documents by a certain date.
Under the Trump administration, the Interior Department has seen a surge in lawsuits for its failure to respond to FOIA requests. The Interior Department faced 68 new FOIA lawsuits in fiscal year 2017, putting it in third place as the most-sued federal agency over alleged FOIA violations, according to The FOIA Project.
The vast majority of these lawsuits were filed after President Donald Trump took office in January 2017. The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security were the only federal agencies to face more FOIA lawsuits than Interior last year.
“We’ve seen this pattern at agency after agency in the Trump Administration: install lobbyists as senior officials and then watch their former clients and corporate allies reap the benefits,” Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy said Monday in a statement. Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that represents clients in litigation against the executive branch.
The documents being sought would help reveal the extent to which Bernhardt may have been involved in decisions impacting his former clients.
The Interior Department had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.
Upon his confirmation, Bernhardt made various ethics pledges, including pledging not to participate for two years after joining the department in any matter involving a former employer or client he worked with during the two years prior to his appointment to the department.
But after Bernhardt was sworn in as deputy secretary, several of his former clients began getting favorable treatment from the Interior Department. The department, for example, withdrew legal guidelines adverse to Cadiz Inc., a client of Bernhardt’s lobbying firm. The guidelines had protected aquifers in California’s Mojave Desert that Cadiz, a publicly traded natural resources company, had been seeking to develop in order to transport water to various water districts in Southern California.
According to the lawsuit, Cadiz was on a list of former clients that Bernhardt pledged not to get involved with after becoming deputy secretary. As it turned out, the removal of the legal guidelines laid the groundwork for a Cadiz project to move forward.
Another former client on Bernhardt’s list of recusals — the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) — benefited when Bernhardt oversaw proposed revisions of sage grouse habitat management agreements. Last September, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management announced plans to reconsider an Obama-era plan for protecting the sage grouse to allow for new mineral leasing, grazing, and other commercial activities across the bird’s habitat in the western United States.
The Trump revisions removing protections for the sage grouse would result in more loosely regulated oil and gas development in sage grouse habitats. In March, IPAA, along with several other oil and gas trade groups, sent a letter to Bernhardt thanking him for his role in rolling back Obama-era regulations, including rules seeking to help the sage grouse, that were having a negative impact on the bottom lines of oil and gas companies.
The Western Values Project, in its lawsuit, also notes that three months after Bernhardt’s confirmation, Eni Petroleum — a company covered by his recusal — received a permit to drill in Alaska’s arctic waters. Eni Petroleum, a division of Italy-based Eni, was the first company allowed to explore for oil in U.S. federal waters off Alaska since 2015.
Halliburton, a global oil and gas services company and a former client of Bernhardt’s, has “enjoyed particular access” to the Interior Department under the Trump administration. Zinke met with Halliburton Chairman David Lesar on August 3, 2017, two days after Bernhardt’s confirmation as deputy secretary. The meeting reportedly concerned Lesar’s backing of a development in Whitefish, Zinke’s hometown, that, if completed, could significantly benefit Zinke’s family.
The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General recently opened an investigation into the meetings between Zinke and Lesar. Eleven federal investigations have now been opened into Zinke’s financial and ethical decisions during his tenure with the Trump administration.
Prior to taking over as deputy secretary at Interior, Bernhardt served as head of the natural resources group at the lobbying firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP. He worked on behalf of dozens of mining and fossil fuel companies with business before the department.
Like many of his agencies, @realDonaldTrump is turning @Interior into an industry playground. That's why we and @Western_Values are suing for records on former lobbyist and now senior DOI official David Bernhardt.
More: https://t.co/JDhrff6MN8 pic.twitter.com/t76AWt8cjf
— Democracy Forward (@DemocracyFwd) July 30, 2018
Since his swearing-in a year ago, the Interior Department has acted in ways that raise questions about Bernhardt’s compliance with his recusal. That’s why the Western Values Project has submitted 10 FOIA requests to the department, seeking documents related to Bernhardt. The Interior Department has failed to respond to the group’s FOIA requests within the timelines required by law, the group says in its lawsuit.
“It is noteworthy that many of the Deputy Secretary’s former clients began receiving sudden and dramatic windfalls only months after his swearing in,” the Western Values Project notes in its lawsuit.
The Interior Department’s decision to shield Bernhardt from oversight provided by FOIA, according to the lawsuit, “deprives” the Western Values Project and the public of “vital information” concerning the Interior Department and its management of public lands.