It’s been just two weeks since David Bernhardt was confirmed as head of the Interior Department (DOI), and already his tenure is mired in at least four controversies.
From the day he was confirmed earlier this month — despite uproar from Democrats over his conflicts of interest and a prior career as an oil and gas lobbyist — Bernhardt has faced a wave of scandals.
The Interior Department’s watchdog is currently investigating Bernhardt over ethics concerns, along with a half-dozen other DOI senior officials. Those investigations come as the department faces renewed scrutiny over its decisions regarding Bears Ears, the Utah national monument dramatically reduced by Bernhardt’s equally scandal-ridden predecessor, Ryan Zinke.
And on Thursday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) called for yet another investigation, this time into the department’s record-keeping, arguing Bernhardt’s daily schedule is not being fully documented and that controversial meetings are “intentionally” being left off the calendar.
“Under Bernhardt, the command appears to be granting favors to extractive industries, science be damned, while fighting tooth and nail to keep the public in the dark,” said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director for the Center for Western Priorities, in an email to ThinkProgress on Thursday.
Earlier this week, the department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) confirmed an investigation into potential ethics violations by six senior DOI officials. The decision came in response to a request by the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, which requested in February that certain DOI staffers face a probe over potentially violating an ethics pledge due to interactions with former employers and clients.
The deputy inspector for the OIG, Mary L. Kendall, said that her office will look into “potential ethics violations committed by multiple Department of Interior senior executives.” The Campaign Legal Center named current Interior officials Benjamin Cassidy, Lori Mashburn, Doug Domenech, Todd Wynn, and Timothy Williams in its complaint. Vincent DeVito, a sixth person named, left the department in August and joined an offshore oil and gas company.
The complaints against the six officials vary, but all relate to their former employers. Cassidy, a former National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist, has been called out for his ongoing work on gun-related issues, including on projects backed by the NRA. Mashburn, a former employee of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, is criticized for staying in close touch with the think tank since leaving. Meanwhile, exchanges show Domenech met with representatives from the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), another think tank that has actively downplayed climate change.
Domenech, who is currently assistant secretary for insular and international affairs, previously worked for the Koch-backed right-wing think tank, which has notched political victories under the Trump administration. DeVito and Wynn similarly engaged with former employers or clients while acting in their capacity as DOI officials.
Senior political appointees are largely limited in the interactions they are allowed with former employers under an ethics pledge imposed by President Donald Trump. The investigation into the DOI staffers will examine whether they are in violation of those limitations.
Bernhardt is similarly accused of breaching that ethics pledge. The Interior secretary, known for carrying around a card listing all of his conflicts of interest, is under investigation in relation to at least seven different complaints, according to an OIG letter sent April 15 to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). That probe was launched four days after the Senate voted to confirm Bernhardt, 56 to 41, largely along party lines.
It is unclear what the full scope of the complaints entail, but Wyden and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) had both pushed for an investigation into Bernhardt’s role in blocking an assessment examining the impact of pesticides on certain endangered species. Bernhardt has previously lobbied on behalf of agribusiness and against endangered species protections.
Recent disclosures have also shown that Bernhardt continued working on policies at DOI that would help his former lobbying clients, despite the Trump administration’s ethics pledge. That work includes shaping certain water policies despite lobbying on them previously while working for California farmers.
He has similarly strayed from the practice of maintaining a detailed daily calendar, instead having staff overwrite a Google document daily, erasing its previous content in the process, which watchdog organizations have worried is eroding transparency.
CREW wrote to Deputy Inspector General Kendall on April 25 urging an investigation. In its complaint, the watchdog group noted that there may be a possible link between the already-opened ethics investigation and the apparently deliberate record-keeping violations, “which appear designed in part to shield from public view and congressional scrutiny his contacts with industry lobbyists.”
DOI has argued that Bernhardt “is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement” and has followed department policy. But Democratic lawmakers and environmental groups are skeptical of the Interior secretary, as well as other senior-level officials at DOI.
“The fish rots from the head,” wrote Wyden in a tweet this week responding to the two investigations.
Chris Saeger, executive director for the nonprofit Western Values Project, told ThinkProgress on Thursday that Bernhardt’s “special interest conflicts are longer than a CVS receipt” and that his leadership at DOI has already been disconcerting for public lands advocates.
“Preventing the rot of corruption within America’s largest land managing agency will clearly require vigilant oversight and enforcement outside of the department’s leadership,” Saeger said, arguing that ongoing scandals and ethics lapses at DOI have come “at the expense of America’s outdoor heritage.”
Bernhardt’s critics are drawing comparisons to Zinke, who announced his exit from the department in December in the midst of more than a dozen scandals relating to spending and ethics violations.
But Zinke’s policy legacy is also living on under Bernhardt. One of the former secretary’s most controversial actions as secretary remains the decision to dramatically shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two Utah national monuments, the largest reduction in U.S. history. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) have shown that oil and gas drilling opportunities played a major role in the decision to reduce the monuments.
The decision was widely panned by indigenous tribes, along with environmental groups and public lands advocates. But their opposition remains unnoticed by DOI. Last Friday, the department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), released the names of the 15 committee members selected to provide guidance on managing Bears Ears — the list included only critics of the monument.
That move has been slammed as “political” by tribal groups, who say the Trump administration is willfully ignoring the wishes of native communities. Supporters of Bears Ears applied, but none were chosen.
Bernhardt’s critics have pointed to that development as yet another indicator that the new secretary will be much like his predecessor, in policy as much as in scandal. Prentice-Dunn argued that Bernhardt has “established a track record of helping his former clients in the drilling and mining industries,” in keeping with the legacy set by Zinke.
Moreover, Prentice-Dunn said, with investigations mounting so early in his tenure, Bernhardt “is already on track to be as scandal-plagued as his predecessor… if not more so.”