Former industry clients of David Bernhardt, the acting secretary of the Interior Department and a longtime fossil fuel lobbyist, have enjoyed what appears to be privileged access to high-ranking political appointees at the federal agency.
More than a dozen ex-clients have arranged at least 70 scheduled meetings with top Interior officials since President Donald Trump took office, according to data the corporate watchdog group Documented compiled. Oil and natural gas corporations that Bernhardt once represented accounted for the vast majority of those meetings, though the acting chief is barred from dealing with them directly due to ethics rules.
“Under David Bernhardt, there seems to be few barriers between the oil, gas, and mining lobby, and the people regulating them,” said Jesse Coleman, a senior investigator with Documented. “As these records demonstrate, the public servants of the [Department of the Interior] are devoting their time to the private interests that used to pay Bernhardt’s salary.”
Although not necessarily violations of federal ethics rules, the meetings are likely to serve as additional fodder for critics concerned that Bernhardt is maintaining close ties to special interests. Conservation groups have labeled the acting agency chief the “ultimate D.C. swamp creature” and a “walking conflict of interest.”
Bernhardt served on the Trump administration’s transition team and was sworn in as Interior’s deputy secretary in August 2017. President Donald Trump recently nominated Bernhardt to replace ousted agency chief Ryan Zinke, who resigned earlier this year under a cloud of ethics scandals. Prior to his current stint at Interior, Bernhardt worked for eight years at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he lobbied on behalf of oil, gas, mining and agricultural interests.
Bernhardt is scheduled to go before a Senate committee for a confirmation hearing Thursday, when he is expected to face tough questions about his personal conduct and ties to the industries he’s now tasked with regulating. Ethics rules prohibit political appointees in the executive branch from participating in certain matters involving former employers or clients for two years.
Bernhardt has played a key behind-the-scenes role in many of the Trump administration’s regulatory rollbacks and is among several Interior Department officials who have been accused of violating Trump’s ethics pledge. Four conservation groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Bernhardt and the Bureau of Land Management over the agency’s recent decision to weaken protections for the greater sage grouse, a ground-dwelling game bird. The rollback allows for increased economic development, in particular oil and gas production, in several Western states.
Documented’s analysis includes in-person and phone meetings that took place both before and after Bernhardt’s confirmation. The list includes at least nine meetings Interior officials held with representatives of Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck; 11 with the National Ocean Industries Association, an offshore oil and gas trade association; nine with the Oklahoma-based trade group U.S. Oil and Gas Association; and six with Independent Petroleum Association of America, the influential trade group for the oil and gas industry.
At a minimum, the list “demonstrates the breadth of Bernhardt’s potential conflicts of interest, and shows how entrenched the Acting Secretary was in the industries that he now regulates,” Brendan Fischer, director of the D.C.-based nonpartisan nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, told HuffPost in an email. Fischer added that he expects Bernhardt is “savvy enough to facilitate that access without violating the letter of the ethics rules.”
Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Bernhardt plays no role in setting up such meetings. Asked, as an example, if Bernhardt would have been briefed after a specific phone call in August 2017 between a former client and Bernhardt’s deputy, Todd Willens, Vander Voort replied “no.”
Of the dozens of meetings on the list, Bernhardt participated in just one: a sit-down in October 2017 with representatives of Trout Unlimited and the National Audubon Society to discuss “Colorado River issues.” Also present at the meeting was Tim Stewart, a founding partner of Bennett Consulting Group and the vice president of one of Bernhardt’s former clients, the U.S. Oil and Gas Association.
Stewart told HuffPost that the meeting focused specifically on a pilot conservation program and that the group did not discuss the controversial water storage project that Cadiz Inc., another of Bernhardt’s former clients, proposed in the California desert.
Interior’s ethics office reviewed and signed off on the meeting, according to Vander Voort.
“Ethics determined none of the meeting attendees or their organizations were on his recusal list,” she said.
Since Stewart wasn’t there to represent the U.S. Oil and Gas Association, it is likely that the provision of the Trump ethics pledge pertaining to former employers doesn’t apply, Fischer told HuffPost. But given his long list of potential conflicts of interest ― Bernhardt carries around a card listing former clients he is barred from participating in decisions about, The Washington Post reported in November ― Fischer said “it seems that Bernhardt should have recused from this meeting to avoid the appearance that his former lobbying client is getting privileged access.”
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting reported this month on a private meeting of oil industry executives in June 2017, where two executives of the Independent Petroleum Association of America boasted about their access to Bernhardt.
“We know him very well, and we have direct access to him, have conversations with him about issues ranging from federal land access to endangered species, to a lot of issues,” Dan Naatz, IPAA’s political director, told the group, according to a recording of the event obtained by Reveal.
Vander Voort told Reveal that Bernhardt has had no communication with the two IPAA executives. Bernhardt’s deputy, Todd Willens, is among several Interior staffers that have met with IPAA.
The perception that Bernhardt’s former industry clients are getting preferential treatment is “flat out wrong,” said Stewart, a longtime registered lobbyist.
“I represent a number of clients from across the spectrum of natural resource issues,” he said. “I can say without a doubt that the meeting scheduling process at the Department of the Interior is the same for everyone, no matter who wants the meeting or who is asking for it.”
This story has been updated with details about a lawsuit filed Wednesday.