Senate confirms ‘walking conflict of interest’ to top Interior Department role

The former lobbyist may be unable to perform his duties as deputy secretary due to conflicts.

CREDIT: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
CREDIT: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee

The Senate voted 53–43 on Monday to confirm David Bernhardt as second-in-command at the Department of the Interior. The former industry lobbyist’s past positions could present numerous conflicts of interest for the issues he will be overseeing at the department.

All Republicans in the Senate either voted for Bernhardt’s confirmation or did not vote. Four Democrats — Michael Bennet (CO), Joe Donnelly (IN), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), and Joe Manchin (WV), as well as Angus King (I-ME), who caucuses with the Democrats, voted for Bernhardt.

Bernhardt, who ran the natural resources department at lobbying and law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, has spent the last several years working on behalf of oil and gas companies and large agribusiness to weaken environmental protections.

“Allowing Bernhardt, a top lobbyist for agribusiness and the oil and gas industry, to oversee Interior is truly like putting a fox in charge of the hen house,” Madeleine Foote, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.


In June, LCV sent a letter urging senators to oppose Bernhardt’s nomination, pointing to his deep ties to industries regulated by the Interior Department.

The Campaign for Accountability accused Bernhardt of continuing to lobby for a client, the Westlands Water District in California, after withdrawing his registration as a lobbyist last November, the Washington Post reported Friday. In a letter to the Justice Department asking it to investigate the claim, the group contended Bernhardt edited a draft executive order for then-President-elect Donald Trump involving water issues that stood to benefit Westlands Water.

Under President George W. Bush, Bernhardt worked as solicitor at the Interior Department, the agency’s third-ranking position, and as a legal officer. During this period, the department was rocked by scandal and ethical violations.

Bernhardt is a “walking conflict of interest,” said Aaron Weiss, spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities, a nonprofit conservation group. “If Bernhardt does recuse himself from all his conflicts, he’ll have nothing to work on at Interior,” Weiss said in a statement.


R.L. Miller, co-founder of Climate Hawks Vote, grassroots-funded group that supports candidates and elected officials whom it identifies as making climate change a top priority, said she views Bernhardt as a “deeply conflicted nominee with a troubling record of climate denial.”

Bernhardt told senators at his confirmation hearing that he admired the leadership of Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has pushed to allow drilling in the Arctic, Atlantic, and Gulf of Mexico and roll back environmental regulations on public lands since taking over as head of the Interior Department. Bernhardt’s nomination was sent to the Senate floor by the Energy Committee on a mostly party-line 14-to-9 vote.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) noted that Bernhardt has so many conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts, that she saw two potential outcomes of his time in Trump’s Interior Department.

“One, he will simply be unable to perform his duties as deputy secretary. That’s because he will need to be recused from such a broad swath of the department’s issues,” Cantwell said during the confirmation hearing. “Or two, he will manage the Interior Department despite his clear conflicts of interest, and he will end up participating in matters involving his former firm or his former clients.

During the Obama administration, nominees who came before the committee were rejected for supposedly outrageous offenses ranging from working for a national environmental group, serving on an advisory board, or simply admitting to being mostly a vegetarian, Cantwell noted.


“I am not suggesting that working for private industry alone disqualifies someone from public service. Not at all. But I am reminded of the positions some of my colleagues took during the Obama administration,” she said.

Article updated to list the Democratic senators who voted for the confirmation of David Bernhardt.