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David Bernhardt

The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate confirmed former fossil fuel lobbyist David Bernhardt as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior in April 2019. (Photo: DOI/Flickr/cc)

'As Corrupt as It Gets': Oil Lobbyist Turned Interior Chief Proposes Giving 'Coveted' Contract to Ex-Client

Critics called on Congress to open an investigation immediately.

Jessica Corbett

Watchdog and conservation groups called out former oil lobbyist and current Interior Secretary David Bernhardt Friday over the department's attempt to give a "coveted" permanent water supply contract to one of Bernhardt's ex-clients.

"Bernhardt is fast making a play for title of 'Shadiest Trump Cabinet Official.'"
—Robert Weissman, Public Citizen

"Bernhardt might as well still work for his former lobbying firm, where he represented oil and gas, mining, and agribusiness interests for many years," declared Public Citizen president Robert Weissman.

Weissman's national advocacy group previously waged a campaign highlighting Bernhardt's conflicts of interest, opposed his confirmation, and filed an ethics complaint demanding a department investigation into him.

"If Bernhardt would like to return to his former lobbying job at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and pursue the interests of his corporate clients, he certainly is free to do so, subject to the ethics rules," Weissman said. "But for now, he is secretary of the Interior, and his duty is to serve the public, not his old clients."

Invoking President Donald Trump's rallying cries from the 2016 campaign, Weissman added that "if anyone still has any illusions that Trump is working to 'drain the swamp' or 'take on elites,' here is the definitive proof that it ain't so. A former lobbyist delivering the goods for his old lobby clients is about as corrupt as it gets. Bernhardt is fast making a play for title of 'Shadiest Trump Cabinet Official.'"

Center for Western Priorities policy director Jesse Prentice-Dunn concurred, tweeting late Thursday that the situation represented "the absolute epitome of the swamp."

Their condemnation came in response to an Associated Press report that the Interior Department "is proposing to award one of the first contracts for federal water in perpetuity" to California's Westlands Water District. The district, which "serves some of country's wealthiest and most politically influential corporate farmers," long employed Bernhardt as a lobbyist.

"As a lobbyist, he was involved in negotiations on a contentious 2016 federal law that made the Westlands' proposed deal possible, allowing water districts to lock up permanent contracts for water from California's federal water project," AP noted. That law, which conservationists oppose over concerns for endangered native wildlife, "reshaped the federal handling of water in the U.S. state with the largest economy."

After years of working for powerful industries, Bernhardt joined the Interior Department as deputy secretary in July 2017, despite opposition from ethics and environmental advocates who labeled him a "walking conflict of interest." The GOP-controlled U.S. Senate confirmed him as secretary in April, following the December resignation of scandal-ridden Ryan Zinke.

"Despite Bernhardt's clear conflicts of interest and his involvement in decisions that are currently under investigation for ethics violations, he can't stop carrying water for his powerful former client," Jayson O'Neill, deputy director of the advocacy group Western Values Project, said in a statement Friday.

"The flood gates of corruption flow through Bernhardt, who has manipulated scientific studies, prioritized resources, and tasked staff all to benefit a former client at the expense of the public," he added. "Bernhardt's level of corruption may only be eclipsed by that of his boss, but that should not prevent Congress from initiating an investigation immediately."

This post has been updated to reflect that David Bernhardt was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as secretary of the Interior Department in April 2019.


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