‘Walking conflict of interest’ Deputy Interior Secretary creates ethical headaches for the agency

David Bernhardt advised to cancel speech on water issues in Colorado.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt (center) listens as President Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House on November 1, 2017. CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt (center) listens as President Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House on November 1, 2017. CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The No. 2 official at the Department of the Interior canceled plans to speak at a water industry forum in Colorado after department ethics officials concluded his appearance at the event could raise conflicts-of-interest concerns.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former industry lobbyist described as a “walking conflict of interest,” notified the Colorado River District that he could not give his scheduled keynote speech on Friday at the district’s water forum in Grand Junction, Colorado.

After consulting with the Interior’s ethics office, Bernhardt “had to decline our invitation due to an abundance of concern for an appearance of conflict of interest,” Chris Treese external affairs manager for the Colorado River District, told The Daily Sentinel.

The ethics office determined the event’s focus on “interstate Colorado River issues” could be perceived as a conflict with Bernhardt’s previous employment with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a law and lobbying firm, the newspaper reported Thursday.


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

Bernhardt’s former law firm appears on his list of ethics recusals. The firm represents the Colorado River Energy Distributors Association and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, entities that both have a potential interest in actions taken by the Colorado River District.

The Colorado River District , officially known as the Colorado River Water Conservation District, is a public water planning and policy agency for the state of Colorado created in 1937.

The Interior Department had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.

As a former industry lobbyist, Bernhardt is running into potential conflicts of interest on a regular basis. On Monday, Bernhardt spoke at the conservative Heritage Foundation about weakening the Endangered Species Act, a policy change that would benefit many of his former clients. As a lobbyist, for instance, he represented Westlands Water District, a California water district that sought to weaken the Endangered Species Act.


“If Deputy Secretary Bernhardt doesn’t even know what events he can commit to without violating ethics rules, then he can’t be trusted to run an agency that does business with a host of his former clients who stand to potentially benefit from his decisions,” Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger said Thursday in a statement. “It appears that Deputy Secretary Bernhardt is so deep in the swamp he doesn’t even know where it starts or ends.”

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 February, the Western Values Project released an analysis of documents obtained through public records requests that found Bernhardt’s former client, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), frequently communicated with Interior officials conducting a review of the Interior Department’s sage grouse policy. IPAA officials offered suggestions for the outcome of the sage grouse review, according to the Western Values Project.

In March, IPAA thanked Bernhardt for his action as deputy secretary that benefited the oil and gas industry.

Then in July, the Western Values Project filed a lawsuit contending the Interior Department has refused to hand over internal documents that may help explain why Bernhardt’s former lobbying clients received regulatory and policy decisions in their favor.


The group has been seeking information on whether Bernhardt has complied with ethics requirements, including a pledge he made to recuse himself from working on matters involving his former lobbyist clients.