David Bernhardt testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

David Bernhardt testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Interior Chief Nominee Defends Ethics Record, Talks Relocating Employees

Secretary-designate David Bernhardt faced testy questioning, but appears to have support for confirmation.

President Trump’s second nominee to lead the Interior Department appears poised for confirmation despite a contentious confirmation hearing on Thursday in which lawmakers questioned his ethics, leadership and past experience.

David Bernhardt, who currently serves as Interior’s acting director, patiently answered each question and defended his capacity to lead the department despite his past lobbying work and reports of coziness with industry. Despite the occasional pushback, some Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee appeared open to possibly joining all Republicans in approving the nominee.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., tested Bernhardt early in the proceedings, accusing the nominee of lying to him about his commitment to ethical behavior. Reports about Bernhardt interfering with scientific work of career Interior employees painted the acting secretary as “just another corrupt official,” Wyden said.

“Why would you come to my office to lie to me about your ethics?” Wyden asked.

Bernhardt said the specific report Wyden mentioned, regarding his role in burying research on the effect of pesticides on endangered species, was not accurate. He further explained he bases all his decisions on the facts involved, the related legal questions and policy considerations. Given a chance to defend his ethical record by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee’s chairman, Bernhardt pointed to actions he oversaw to elevate Interior’s ethics officials and the hiring of new leadership to oversee that program. He also pointed to the “incredibly robust process” he undertook to recuse himself from any issues related to his former clients, which includes the oil industry.

Wyden accused Bernhardt of inserting himself into the scientific process, adding the nominee was “so conflicted” that he faced only two unenviable possibilities.

“One,” Wyden said, “you’re going to have to disqualify yourself from so many matters that I don’t know how you’re going to spend your day, or two, you’re going to be making decisions that either directly or indirectly benefit former clients regularly violating your ethics pledge.”

Later in the hearing, Bernhardt clarified that he “certainly didn’t lie to the senator.” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., chastised Wyden for his treatment of the acting secretary and said if previous Interior nominees, such as Obama-era Secretary Sally Jewell, were held to the same standards, they never would have been confirmed.

“This is why good people don’t want to serve this country because people on this committee and others around this Capitol decide they can attack the witnesses and impugn their character,” Gardner said.

Bernhardt also addressed an array of policy issues, including management of Interior’s 70,000 employees. He said the department is still pushing to move the Bureau of Land Management out of Washington, D.C., and into the western part of the country.

“We’re developing a business case for moving BLM west,” said Bernhardt, who served as Interior’s solicitor during the George W. Bush administration. “It allows us to get to places easier, more quickly, shorter flights. Frankly, the quality of life for our employees will be fantastic, too.”

Interior is currently in the process of consolidating its non-Washington offices into 12 unified regions. It received $14 million in fiscal 2019 to begin its reorganization and requested $10.5 million for relocation costs in its fiscal 2020 budget request.

Bernhardt also discussed his controversial decision to recall employees to process oil and gas drilling permits during the recent 35-day shutdown, saying he was only looking out for his workers. Environmental groups criticized that action as cherry-picking what non-emergency work was conducted during the appropriations lapse.

“I made a decision during the shutdown to put folks back to work because I could guarantee they would get paid,” Bernhardt said. “I didn’t know how long this was going to take and I can tell you I had employees who were calling our ethics office to see if they could sell their plasma. I made the decision to put folks to work that I could, and that we had resources for.”

He also cited initiatives he spearheaded to address widespread reports of sexual harassment at Interior and, in particular, the National Park Service, saying the department has issued a “dramatically revised policy,” hired anti-harassment coordinators and reprioritized funding for those efforts.

“Look, what I’ve told management side is if they don’t deal with issues themselves, I’m dealing with the management,” Bernhardt said. “I cannot have an environment where I have to think that if my daughter wanted to work at the Park Service, that’s threatening. It’s unacceptable. We’re dealing with it.”

Several senators raised concerns with Interior’s budget proposals, but the acting secretary dismissed the document as merely “the beginning of a discussion point to work through.” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the committee, ultimately said Bernhardt was “qualified” and had “a great deal of experience.” Manchin was one of four Democrats who voted for Bernhardt’s nomination to deputy secretary in 2017.

While Bernhardt pledged to extricate himself from issues before the department when appropriate, he would not commit to exceeding the minimum one-year recusal period. Republican senators noted the Office of Government Ethics and the top Interior ethics official both have signed off on his behavior.

“I have a very particular skill set, strength, creativity, judgment [and] I’m basically handcuffed and not in the game for the American people if I am recusing myself,” Bernhardt said. “I don’t think that is the best strategy.”

He added: “You want your ‘A’ quarterback playing for your team.”

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