David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, speaks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at his confirmation hearing to head the Interior Department, on March 28.

David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, speaks before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee at his confirmation hearing to head the Interior Department, on March 28. J.Scott Applewhite/AP

Interior Watchdog Opens Probe of Newly Confirmed Secretary

Lawmakers and legal advocacy group suspect Bernhardt has conflicts of interest.

Three days after David Bernhardt was confirmed by the Senate as Interior Secretary (in a 56-41 vote), the department’s watchdog confirmed that it has launched an investigation of his possible conflicts of interests with previous industry employers.

Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall on Monday informed “multiple” lawmakers and the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, her spokeswoman confirmed to Government Executive, that the probe has been opened based on their concerns. The IG “has received seven complaints, including yours, from a wide assortment of complainants, alleging various possible conflict of interests and other violations by then-Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt,” said the letter to the Campaign Legal Center.

The nonprofit on Feb. 28 sent a detailed complaint noting that Bernhardt, who, besides his years of experience at the Interior Department, has lobbied from the Washington, D.C., office of law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck for oil and gas, mining and Western water interests on issues related to the Endangered Species Act.

During his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt has said he would recuse himself from relevant decisions and honor ethics agreements. But the complainants argue he violated that pledge in implementing decisions sought by a former client, California-based Westlands, the nation’s largest water district.

“The story of David Bernhardt is a classic story of the problem with lobbyists passing through Washington’s revolving door,” said Campaign Legal Center ethics counsel Delaney Marsco. “We hope the IG recommends that Bernhardt separate himself from Interior matters that may benefit his former lobbying clients for the entirety of his government service. To avoid a tenure marred by ethics scandals similar to cabinet officials like Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt, Bernhardt should ensure that his actions avoid even the appearance of favoritism.”

Asked for comment, Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said, “Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations. It is important to note that the Department Ethics Office has already conducted a review of many of these accusations at Mr. Bernhardt’s request,” she added. “Secretary Bernhardt is hopeful the inspector general will expeditiously complete a review of the facts associated with the questions raised by Democratic members of Congress and D.C. political organizations.”

As acting Interior chief, Vander Voort added, Bernhardt had already beefed up the department’s ethics program by hiring a new designated agency ethics official and assistant, while elevating the status of that office and communicating to staff the importance of a sound ethics culture.

“Since 2017, Mr. Bernhardt has overseen the hiring of 42 impressive career ethics officials compared to a mere 31 hired in the previous 8 years between 2009 and 2016,” her statement said.

Bernhardt is also being investigated by the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the National Archives and Records Administration for his handling of his appointments calendar.

CQ-Roll Call on Tuesday reported that the department had confirmed earlier reports that some of Bernhardt’s meetings had been left off the documents.

“Many of those calendar entries had little or no description of whom he was meeting and described numerous meetings merely as “internal” or “external,” the news outlet wrote.

“Separate summaries of his daily schedule released this month show meetings were scheduled with representatives of industries the department regulates, including groups or companies Bernhardt represented as a lobbyist before he joined the Trump administration. While the summaries show that the meetings were scheduled, they don’t make clear whether all the scheduled meetings occurred.”

The Interior spokeswoman denied that meetings were left off the calendar and that Bernhardt’s staff-prepared schedules were properly archived. “The records in question were stored, and remain stored, at all times within the agency's collaboration platform,” said a statement from a senior agency official records management official. “It is my assessment and the opinion of department counsel that Interior is and at all times has been fully compliant with federal records laws with respect to these records.”