“Deputy Secretary Bernhardt acts in accord with his ethics agreement … not the opinion of rabid advocates whose primary purpose is character assassination…”
As a chapter in the lesson plan instructing you to be careful what you wish for, let us consider the case of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the ever-increasing possibility that he soon will be ousted over ethics concerns.
Last week, President Trump said that Zinke’s job was safe — for the moment. But his tenure at Interior plainly is perched on a knife edge. His departure would remove from the Cabinet a member devoted to environmentally dubious oil drilling, to wasteful and foolish water projects and to feathering his own nest.
That prospect warrants taking a close look at his likeliest successor, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt. And to the possibility that, compared with Zinke, Bernhardt will be much, much worse.
Zinke’s departure isn’t a done deal, and there’s been no indication that if he’s ousted, Bernhardt’ will necessarily be his successor. But it’s proper to keep Bernhardt’s career in perspective as an example of the Washington revolving door made flesh.
Bernhardt was a lawyer at the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which represented companies in the oil, gas, mining and agriculture industries, when he was first appointed to the Interior Department by President George W. Bush in 2001.
When the Obama administration took office in 2009, Bernhardt returned to the Brownstein firm. There his client roster included pantloads of entities with current or potential cases within Interior’s jurisdiction. As my colleague Bettina Boxall reported, Brownstein Hyatt sued Interior four times on behalf of California’s Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest irrigation district. And Bernhardt personally argued one case challenging endangered species protections for California salmon.
Despite these potential conflicts — or perhaps in recognition of them — President Trump named Bernhardt deputy Interior secretary in late 2016. He was confirmed in July 2017, and promptly filed a disclosure letter listing 22 firms or individuals on whose cases he would have to recuse himself at least until mid-2019, according to executive branch policy.
He also filed a financial disclosure revealing that he had collected $953,085 as a partnership distribution upon leaving the Brownstein firm to take up his government post.
Since then, however, questions have persisted over whether Bernhardt really has kept his nose out of issues dear to the hearts of his former clients. One problem is that the connections between agency policies, Bernhardt’s role and the benefits to his former clients aren’t always direct or crystal clear.
In August, for instance, Bernhardt produced an op-ed for the Washington Post that amounted to a broadside against the Endangered Species Act, the law over which he had sued Interior on behalf of Westlands. Bernhardt’s advocacy of a rollback of the law, as we observed at the time, would sit very warmly within the hearts of Westlands and other former clients.
An Interior spokeswoman responded furiously to my question about whether the op-ed bespoke a conflict of interest for Bernhardt. “This question is outrageous,” Deputy Press Secretary Faith Vander Voort emailed me. She said Bernhardt “is completely compliant with his ethics agreement and he takes it very seriously. The Administration’s interest in improving the Endangered Species Act is significant and it is irresponsible to insinuate that it was driven by the Deputy Secretary’s prior employment.”…(CONTINUED)