David Bernhardt, the Interior Department’s second-in-command who has been described as a “walking conflict of interest,” will now lead the agency as acting secretary following Ryan Zinke’s resignation. Bernhardt, a former oil industry lobbyist, is widely seen as one of the Trump administration’s most effective officials in rolling back regulations in favor of industry interests.
Bernhardt officially took over the role of acting secretary on January 3 after Zinke left the agency dogged by scandals and investigations. Bernhardt will lead the agency until President Donald Trump names Zinke’s permanent replacement.
While Bernhardt’s promotion may be temporary, it reflects a trend under President Donald Trump in which scandal-ridden heads of agencies and departments are replaced with their deputies — and typically these deputies bring with them a long list of conflicts of interest to their new role. This includes former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, who is the acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Patrick Shanahan, acting secretary of the Department of Defense and a former Boeing executive, and Eric Hargan, acting secretary of Health and Human Services and a former pharmaceuticals lobbyist.
What’s more, under a federal vacancies law, acting secretaries and administrators such as Bernhardt could remain in the position for years should no permanent replacement be named.
It's been a high honor to serve @POTUS & the American People as @Interior Secretary. We've restored public lands “for the benefit & enjoyment of the people,” improved public access & shall never be held hostage again for our energy needs. God bless America & those who defend her. pic.twitter.com/JXzVmrpDTg
— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) January 2, 2019
Last month, Zinke announced that he would step down at the end of the year following mounting scandals and investigations, including one related to a Montana land deal linked to Halliburton chairman David Lesar being referred to the Justice Department. On December 31, Lesar stepped down as chairman.
Bernhardt, meanwhile, has been credited as the mind behind many of the Interior Department’s controversial policy changes — from selling off public lands to altering the Endangered Species Act.
He is described as being an effective operator who understands how the department works. Like Wheeler, who replaced Scott Pruitt as acting administrator of the EPA, Bernhardt has largely operated behind the scenes before being elevated to head of the agency.
Chris Saeger, executive director of the nonprofit Western Values Project, which launched a website dedicated to detailing Bernhardt’s past lobbying work, said in a statement that Bernhardt is “the ultimate D.C. swamp creature.”
“The bottom line,” he said, “is that Bernhardt is too conflicted to even be the acting secretary.”
Before joining the Interior Department, Bernhardt ran the natural resources department at lobbying and law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. During his time there, he worked on behalf of oil and gas companies as well as large agribusinesses to weaken environmental protections. Prior to that, he worked under President George W. Bush as solicitor at the Interior Department; his time was marked by scandal and ethics violations.
During his confirmation process in July 2017 to become deputy secretary, several groups voiced concern about his close ties to industry he would now regulate. A spokesperson for the nonprofit conservation group Center for Western Priorities described him at the time as a “walking conflict of interest.”
Madeleine Foote, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters, said, “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.”
In fact, Bernhardt has so many potential conflicts of interest that he has to carry around a card listing all of them so he doesn’t forget.
Despite the reminder card and his pledge to recuse himself from working on matters involving former lobbyist clients, Bernhardt’s actions as interior deputy secretary quickly raised questions about potential conflicts of interest.
In May 2018, for instance, it was revealed that Bernhardt met with lobbyists in late 2017 who were working on behalf of MGM Resorts International to oppose efforts by two Native American tribes to build a casino in Connecticut. (Incidentally, Zinke is under investigation regarding the casino controversy.)
The Western Values Project has also sued the department over its refusal to hand over internal documents related to Bernhardt. The group contends that the documents would help explain the extent to which Bernhardt may have been involved in decisions impacting his former clients.
And in September, Bernhardt was asked by department ethics officials to cancel a speaking engagement at a water industry forum in Colorado due to potential conflicts of interest linked to his former employer being raised by his appearance.
Environmental groups and government watchdogs fear that with Bernhardt now leading a department responsible for managing a fifth of the country’s land, the fossil fuel industry will see even more favors.
As former Obama-era career Interior official Joel Clement told Mother Jones, “Bernhardt knows where all the skeletons are and the strings to pull.”