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Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has a long history of lobbying for Big Oil and Big Ag. (Photo: Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck)

New Interior Chief Bernhardt Reportedly Held Secret Meeting Linked to One of His Predecessor's Many Scandals

Newly revealed meeting "absolutely epitomizes the 'swamp' that Donald Trump promised to drain but is in fact flooding," one critic said

Julia Conley

It's only been a week, but newly-confirmed Interior Secretary David Bernhardt's conflicts of interests are already raising questions about his involvement in the very same scandals for which his predecessor is now under investigation.

The Guardian reported Wednesday that Bernhardt, who was confirmed last week over the objections of climate action and conservation groups, met in 2018 with a lawyer for the Schaghticoke tribal nation of Connecticut, which opposed the operation of a new casino in the state by two other tribes.

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned in December after coming under scrutiny for a number of conflicts of interest, including allegations that he was involved in blocking the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes' approval for the casino.

Bernhardt's meeting with Marc Kasowitz, a former lawyer for President Donald Trump, took place in April 2018 and was not previously included on the secretary's public schedule. Roll Call reported Tuesday that Bernhardt scrubbed a number of meetings with timber, fossil fuel, and water interests from his calendar before making it public. 

The Democratic consulting firm American Bridge said Wednesday that Bernhardt's meeting with Kasowitz embodies the very conduct opponents of Zinke hoped to be rid of when he resigned.

"It's no wonder former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt—who is now under ethics investigation by his own department—kept his calendars secret for so long," spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. "If he met with one of the president's personal lawyers about helping a major international corporation bully tribal nations out of fairly competing with them, then it absolutely epitomizes the 'swamp' that Donald Trump promised to drain but is in fact flooding."

The Interior Department claimed Wednesday that Bernhardt's meeting with Kasowitz related to the Schaghticoke's federal recognition, but Chief Richard Velky told the Guardian that it was focused on a state-level lawsuit—like the one the tribe filed along with MGM Resorts International to stop the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes from potentially taking away business from MGM with a new casino.

Zinke is currently under investigation by a grand jury for his role in blocking the casino proposal.

The news of Bernhardt's meeting with Kasowitz comes two days after reporting revealedthat the Interior Department's own inspector general had opened an investigation into the secretary's numerous conflicts of interest.

The investigation centers on Bernhardt's role in blocking the release of a study on a pesticide which may threaten 1,400 protected species.

"We now have an Interior Secretary who has been on the job for one full business day and is already under investigation," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who had called for the probe, on Monday. "With Bernhardt's track record and the number of allegations against him, it's no surprise."

"Like with so many of his colleagues in Donald Trump's cabinet," he continued, "Secretary Bernhardt has extensive conflicts of interests and is hostile to the mission of the Department he leads."

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