Just when you thought Ryan Zinke’s resignation would be the end of rampant corruption scandals at the Department of the Interior, along comes his former deputy David Bernhardt. It’s only been two weeks since President Trump nominated the former oil and gas lobbyist to head the department, but by our count, he’s already involved in at least 15 separate corruption-related scandals.
Just like we did for his former boss, we plan to keep this scandal tracker up-to-date by adding, subtracting, or elaborating on each scandal as it develops.
Many of Bernhardt’s scandals are related in one way or another to his work lobbying for the extraction and agriculture industries, which he did up until he joined the DOI in 2017. Famously, Bernhardt carried around the note card pictured above to remind him of all the various conflicts of interest his former career created, as well as the dates when those conflicts legally expire. That he may have worked in the interest of his former clients before those dates is the central thrust of Bernhardt’s scandals, in addition to simple mismanagement and neglect of the 500 million acres of public land and 70,000 employees he’s responsible for.
Fiddling with FOIA
On March 5, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote to Bernhardt expressing concern that alterations he's making to DOI's Freedom of Information Act procedures amount to an attempt to suppress the department's transparency.
Why you should care: FOIA is the public's mechanism for peering inside the federal government's decision making process.
A Dam California Doesn't Want
On March 5, news broke that Bernhardt is trying to push forward construction of the Shasta Dam project in northern California, despite opposition from the state government and a state law prohibitting its construction. The project doesn't seem to have a whole lot of purpose, beyond benefitting Bernhardt's former client Westlands Water District. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal have written to DOI ethics officials demanding investigation.
Why you should care: Dams cause massive harm up and down a river's ecosystem, and even carry far-away impacts like ocean beach errosion. Pushing the project forward against state law could be overreach for the federal agency, and if it's being done for corrupt purposes, then all this is just even more troubling.
A "Useless and Environmentally Damaging Water Project"
New to this list on March 5 are claims that Interior withdrew legal rulings preventing a former client of Bernhardt's old lobbying firm from developing a water storage facility in the Mojave Desert. The client, Cadiz Inc, paid Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP $2.75 million and granted it 200,000 shares of its stock while Bernhardt worked there. Now with one of his former Brownstein colleagues serving as Cadiz CEO, Interior ruled in the firm's favor shortly after Bernhardt's confirmation as deputy secretary. The project appears to be almost entirely a boondoggle, with no public benefit but potentially massive environmental repurcussions.
Why you should care: This appears to be a classic example of public funds being diverted to private profit, and at enormous cost to public resources (in this case, water).
One Tiny Fish
As a lobbyist, Bernhardt spent years fighting for the rollback of Endangered Species Act protections for the Delta Smelt on behalf of Westlands Water District, a large agricultural interest that holds water rights in California’s Central Valley. As Deputy Secretary of the Interior, Bernhardt "has been finishing the job,” the New York Times reports.
Why you should care: What may sound like a trivial issue could actually have enormous repercussions. Reducing protections for the smelt would jeopardize the health of the entire San Francisco Bay Delta, imperiling dozens of species of fish and the birds and sea mammals that feed on them. Diverting the delta’s water to industrial agriculture could also lead to toxic algae blooms, compounding the environmental devastation and harming commercial fishing in the region.
The Western Values Project has begun a petition calling for Congress to investigate the issue.
Closed Government, Open Parks
During the 35-day government shutdown, the DOI ordered national parks to remain open, staffed by only a skeleton crew of law enforcement officers. This left many of our country’s most famous parks overrun by unsupervised visitors, who didn’t have access to essential services like toilets. The damage all that caused has not yet been calculated, but will likely add massively to the National Park Service’s already overwhelming $11.6-billion maintenance backlog. Some of the harm done to the fragile ecosystems in the parks could take generations to undo. No public explanation has been attempted for the decision, which occurred as management of DOI transferred from Zinke to Bernhardt.
March 5, 2019 update: According to materials obtained by The Hill, Bernhardt authorized funds in excess of $250 million to cover staffing during the shutdown, a move that potentially violated the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act, The National Park Service Organic Act, and the Antideficiency Act.
Why you should care: Parks were closed during previous shutdowns; this decision appears to have been a misjudged attempt to manage public opinion around the shutdown. It added to the multi-billion maintenance backlog at a time when no solutions to that funding shortfall are even being proposed. The health of our parks should not be a political football.
Diverting Park Entry Fees to Cover Costs
As it became apparent how damaging the shutdown was turning out to be for the national parks, Bernhardt ordered them to divert funds from previously-collected entry fees in order to pay for things like trash clearing and toilet maintenance. The order authorized parks to take these accounts down to $0, which, according to retired Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, would have left the department unable to pay its fee collectors when the shutdown ended. It also turns out that under federal law, the order was illegal, and it was soon reversed.
Why you should care: If you need an indication of where Bernhardt’s priorities lie, this is it. During the shutdown he devoted himself to serving the oil and gas industries (see below), while mismanaging and neglecting national parks.
Rushing ANWR Drilling Review Through During Shutdown
While everyone was up in arms about national parks remaining open during the shutdown, Bernhardt used the chaos as a smokescreen to rush through a public comment period from local communities on drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Notice of hearings was sent out only a day or two in advance, which effectively suppressed public comment in a state that’s both vast and currently in the dead of winter, where even local communities needed to travel in order to attend the hearings.
Why you should care: Drilling in one of our country’s last unspoiled wildernesses enjoys virtually no public support and is being pushed through solely to benefit the extraction industry. This continues a pattern of the Trump administration’s DOI suppressing or ignoring the public’s opinion.
Keeping Oil Permitting Staff Operating During Shutdown
While parks suffered, Bernhardt diverted department resources to the Bureau of Land Management, where 800 staff remained on duty, specifically tasked with processing new oil and gas permits.
Why you should care: Taxpayer funds were used in benefit of private industry while taxpayer services were neglected.
That Halliburton Real Estate Deal
One of the scandals that drove Ryan Zinke from office was a real estate deal with the chairman of Halliburton. As a lobbyist, Bernhardt represented Halliburton. It’s not clear if Bernhardt had knowledge of the deal or of Zinke’s meetings at DOI headquarters about it, but he likely did have knowledge of the department’s contemporaneous work rescinding fracking regulations to the benefit of the corporation.
Why you should care: It seems as if Zinke may have sought to profit from a relationship with a company he was tasked with regulating. This conflict of interest may be continuing with Bernhardt.
A Calendar Without Names
More than 150 entries in Bernhardt’s official calendar fail to list the identities of persons or companies he was meeting with. Given Bernhardt’s numerous conflicts of interest, this is problematic for Congressional oversight, and the House Natural Resources Committee is demanding he fill in the gaps.
Why you should care: Intentionally omitting details of his work is illegal, and could have been an attempt to cover up illegal actions.
Vindictively Re-Assigning Employees
As deputy secretary, Bernhardt chaired the DOI board that allegedly re-assigned employees to roles outside their areas of expertise in an attempt to punish public servants Zinke didn’t consider “loyal.”
Why you should care: Career government employees work in your interest and are supposed to be able to do so free of hyper-partisan politics.
In 2017, DOI refused to rule on plans for a tribal casino in Connecticut, effectively preventing its construction. The move benefited corporate giant MGM Resorts International, which is a client of Bernhardt’s old lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP.
Why you should care: It’s the old story of little guy versus massive corporations with potentially illegal influence over our government.
Prioritizing Former Clients Over Sage Grouse
Shortly after he was appointed deputy secretary, Bernhardt was tasked with overseeing a review of sage grouse management plans. That’s a whole can of worms that I won’t explore here, but the short version is that plan provided environmental protections across vast swaths of the American West. Bernhardt issued instructional memorandums to six states that de-prioritized grouse habitat, work that earned him a thank you letter from former lobbying client.
Why you should care: Well, you should care about the sage grouse management plan, which is a grand compromise between stake holders as diverse as oil companies and hunting groups that took years to hammer out and works in everyone’s interest. Or at least it did, before Bernhardt got to it. Failing that, this is yet another example of Bernhardt potentially working in the interest of former lobbying clients.
Eni Petroleum’s “Christmas Present”
Eni Petroluem is one of the companies on Bernhardt’s ethics recusal, yet soon after he was appointed deputy secretary, it also became the first company to be approved for a drilling permit in Arctic waters since 2015. If you think that’s bad, DOI then tasked two employees with working over the Christmas holiday to finish approvals of that permit. A DOI spokesperson then referred to that as “a Christmas present,” to Eni.
Why you should care: Oil companies probably shouldn’t mistake the Secretary of the Interior for Santa Claus.
Earning Money for His Former Lobbying Firm
A former client of Bernhardt's began paying his former lobbying firm a $10,000-a-month bonus shortly after he was appointed Deputy Secretary. Why? Allegedly they were just that impressed by Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP’s newfound access to the department.
Why you should care: This seems like a pretty cut-and-dried case of paying for access.