'Walking Conflict of Interest': Fossil Fuel Industry Lobbyist Now Second-in-Command at Interior Dept.

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'Walking Conflict of Interest': Fossil Fuel Industry Lobbyist Now Second-in-Command at Interior Dept.

"David Bernhardt is absolutely the wrong choice for deputy secretary of the Interior. All you have to do is look at his record."

Deputy secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt

The new deputy secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, has a long history of lobbying for Big Oil. (Photo: Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck)

Despite David Bernhardt's long career of lobbying for the gas and oil industry, on Monday the Senate confirmed him as second-in-command of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which manages public lands and water, as well as federal protections for endangered species.

Although Bernhardt's confirmation as deputy secretary isn't a shock, considering Trump's tendency to stock the White House and federal agencies with corporate insiders and former lobbyists, it still frustrated environmentalists.

"Bernhardt has years of experience serving corporate polluters so he's going to fit right into the Trump Administration’s Department of Interior."
—Ben Schreiber, Friends of the Earth

"Bernhardt has years of experience serving corporate polluters so he's going to fit right into the Trump Administration's Department of Interior," said Ben Schreiber, senior political strategist at Friends of the Earth. "Americans want our public lands protected, not plundered for corporate profit. The senators who voted to confirm Bernhardt are enabling Trump's trashing of America's public lands."

Before Bernhardt's confirmation, more than 150 environmental groups urged the Senate to reject his nomination.

"Bernhardt has been called a 'walking conflict of interest' for good reason. He represents everything that's wrong with the Trump administration and the revolving door of politics," said Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's clear he'll put the interests of oil, mining and agribusiness above the interests of the American people, public lands and wildlife. From Scott Pruitt to Ryan Zinke, and now David Bernhardt, Trump has assembled the most anti-environmental administration in history."

This new role is not Bernhardt's first post at the department. Last time a Republican was president, Bernhardt served as solicitor, the department's third-ranking position. As Kelly Mitchell, Greenpeace USA's climate and energy campaign director, wrote for The Hill:

Prior to answering his calling as a super lobbyist, Bernhardt was in charge of legal and ethical compliance at the Interior Department under President George W. Bush. Under his watch, the agency was engulfed in scandals ranging from financial self-dealing, sex and drug scandals, and modifying scientific reports about endangered species to "make the science fit the policy." He has even sat on boards and worked for groups, including the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability and Safari Club International, that oppose the Endangered Species Act and have strong financial ties to the oil and gas industry.

After Barack Obama took office, Bernhardt returned to the private sector, where he fostered relationships with clients he'll inevitably encounter again as deputy secretary of the Interior. As Greenpeace's Mitchell put it, he has "enough conflicts of interest concerns to make ethics watchdogs short circuit."

Environmentalists' concerns include allegations that Bernhardt kept working to further industry interests after he was nominated by Trump. As the Denver Post reported:

A nonprofit group, Campaign for Accountability, claims that Bernhardt continued to lobby for the Westlands Water District in California after withdrawing his registration as a lobbyist in November. In a letter to the Justice Department asking it to investigate the claim, the group claims Bernhardt edited a draft executive order for then President-elect Trump involving water issues that stood to benefit Westland Water. Campaign for Accountability said Bernhardt continued to work with Westlands Water into January. The allegation doesn't show whether Bernhardt was paid for any work conducted after deactivating his registration, but Daniel Stevens, executive director of the group, said: "I don't think that matters. He's still advancing the agenda of the group."

Bernhardt's law firm "also billed Westlands for a trip he took from Washington to Sacramento last winter," according to the Los Angeles Times. Prior to his confirmation, Bernhardt assured the department's ethics officer that he would withdraw from his firm partnership, and for his first year as deputy secretary, he would recuse himself from decisions involving past clients—unless he received authorization. However, considering his firm's "extensive list of clients involved in natural resource matters overseen by Interior, environmentalists argue it is likely Bernhardt will get administration waivers to participate in decisions affecting former clients," the Times noted.

"His work for the oil and gas industry and western water interests presents irresolvable conflicts with his responsibilities as deputy secretary."
—Bob Dreher, Defenders of Wildlife

As Common Dreams has reported, waiving ethics rules has become commonplace within the Trump administration. According to a report released last week by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernhardt now joins the ranks of more than two dozen former lobbyists who have advised or currently work for agencies they have recently lobbied.

"His work for the oil and gas industry and western water interests presents irresolvable conflicts with his responsibilities as deputy secretary, and casts doubt on his commitment to stewardship of the nation's lands, resources and wildlife. His past tenure at the Department of the Interior demonstrates a similar disregard for acting in the public interest to protect our shared natural heritage," said Bob Dreher, senior vice president of conservation programs from Defenders of Wildlife. "David Bernhardt is absolutely the wrong choice for deputy secretary of the Interior. All you have to do is look at his record."

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