Trump nominates deputy Interior secretary with serious conflicts of interest

David Bernhardt will work on policies that directly benefit clients for whom he lobbied just before getting the job.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Molly Riley
CREDIT: AP Photo/Molly Riley

President Donald Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced on Friday that former Interior Solicitor and current lobbyist David Bernhardt will be nominated for Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department. Bernhardt was a senior political official and the top lawyer in charge of ethics and legal compliance for President George W. Bush’s Interior Department during a period plagued by scandal and ethical violations.

“I am excited to announce the president and I have selected Dave Bernhardt to help me lead the Interior Department,” Zinke said. “Bernhardt’s extensive experience serving under Secretary Norton and his legal career is exactly what is needed to help streamline government and make the Interior and our public lands work for the American economy.”

After leaving DOI in 2009, Bernhardt joined the Washington, D.C. office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck where he runs the firm’s natural resources department and has lobbied for mining companies, oil and gas companies, and powerful water users in the West. Trump’s move to weaken federal lobbyist rules will allow Bernhardt to work on policies that directly benefit clients for whom he lobbied just before getting the job.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) has called Bernhardt a “walking conflict of interest.”

Already, Bernhardt has cashed in on a recent Trump Interior Department decision to overturn an Obama-era policy blocking Cadiz Inc. from building a water pipeline so that they can pump water from underneath the Mojave Desert and sell it in Southern California. Bernhardt’s lobbying firm owns 200,000 shares of the stock in Cadiz Inc, and stand to earn nearly $3 million more if the Interior finalizes the decision. Many are already calling for Bernhardt to recuse himself from any decisions related to the water project.

“If he does not recuse himself from working on issues he has profited from as a lobbyist, he will be the embodiment of the Washington swamp — taking a high-level government job to help his private sector partners cash in,” said Aaron Weiss, media director at the Center for Western Priorities. “If Bernhardt does recuse himself from all his conflicts, he’ll have nothing to work on at Interior.”

Bernhardt, and those working under him, are also known to have modified scientific findings that were politically inconvenient. In 2007, Bernhardt stood by Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald, who was forced to resign after accusations that she violated the law by revising U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports to make “the science fit the policy,” thus undermining government science relating to Endangered Species Act decisions. In 2001, while directing DOI’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, Bernhardt rewrote the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientific findings that warned of the impact of Arctic drilling on caribou herds.

“There are a million reasons why David Bernhardt shouldn’t get this job, and even more questions about his previous tenure at Interior, and in the private sector,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project. “This is sadly just the latest example that powerful special interests are taking the reins at Interior at the expense of all who value public lands.”

The announcement comes after a week executive orders directing the agency to review protections for national monuments and offshore drilling.

Bernhard now awaits a Senate confirmation hearing in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Jenny Rowland is the research and advocacy manager for the public lands team at the Center for American Progress. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress Action Fund.