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Zinke’s likely replacement has been ‘the man behind the curtain’

By as published on Politico

David Bernhardt, who is set to become acting Interior secretary, has pleased President Donald Trump but is drawing attacks from environmental groups.

Like former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt before him, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has an experienced deputy steeped in the world of bureaucratic infighting ready to fill his shoes — one with longstanding ties to the energy industry he now regulates.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil, gas and water industries that rely on Interior’s decisions, is poised to become acting secretary following President Donald Trump’s announcement Saturday that Zinke will leave by the end of the year. And that’s already alarming environmentalists, some of whom had said they might prefer to see a distracted, scandal-plagued Zinke stay in the job.

Bernhardt, who joined the Trump administration last year, has taken the lead in softening the department’s protections for endangered species, a move that will make it easier for oil and gas companies to drill on ecologically sensitive lands. “He knows how to make that agency work, and he is why Interior is now considered ‘best in class’ in terms of agency performance,” said Stephen Brown, a lobbyist at RBJ Strategies.

Green groups quickly called for more scrutiny of Bernhardt’s record.

“The bottom line is that Bernhardt is too conflicted to even be acting secretary,” said Chris Saeger, executive director for Western Values Project, a conservation group that filed a lawsuit in July demanding access to Bernhardt’s official communications. “At the very least, the American public deserves to know more about the man behind the curtain who is actually running the show at Interior and could soon be fully responsible for managing our country’s public lands, wildlife and natural resources.”

“If Ryan Zinke was bad, his likely replacement, David Bernhardt, is even worse,” the Alaska Wilderness League said in a statement Saturday.

And Bernhardt may end up with the post permanently, according to a source who said Trump has been happy with his effectiveness in running the bulk of the agency on Zinke’s watch. The source said it might be too problematic for Trump to find another Interior candidate amid a series of other high-level vacancies in his administration.

Other names have been floated among industry representatives and green groups, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), whom Trump had reportedly considered for the job two years ago — but who had been quick to criticize Trump’s leaked boasts about sexual assault a month before the 2016 election. McMorris Rodgers is not interested in the job now, a source said Saturday.

The consensus is that picking Bernhardt — already confirmed by the Senate — would be the path of least resistance.

On the other hand, Bernhardt might not want the job, said one lawyer who has business in front of Interior.

“Some folks think he [Bernhardt] may not want to stick around for another two years and may actually see all the of the ceremonial and speech-making functions of the secretary as a distraction from getting done the things he wants,” said the lawyer, who asked for anonymity to discuss personnel issues.

Bernhardt has been on notice for quite some time that he might need to step in for Zinke, whose troubles included an ongoing investigation of a land deal in Montana — first reported by POLITICO — tied to the chairman of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest energy companies. Interior’s inspector general has referred that probe to the Justice Department for potential further investigation or even prosecution, according to several media reports.

“For the last month, if not longer, it has been a common reference, even from the secretary, that David needs to be ready,” a source close to Interior’s senior staff told POLITICO for a story published in October. The source requested anonymity to discuss internal department matters

Bernhardt, a former lobbyist known as “a lawyer’s lawyer” in the industry, could wind up playing a role similar to the one that longtime Washington lobbyist Andrew Wheeler has played since >becoming acting administrator of the EPA this summer. In contrast to former EPA chief Pruitt, who had alienated even many Republican lawmakers with his cascade of personal scandals, Wheeler has kept a relatively low profile while continuing to methodically roll back environmental rules and promote coal and oil production.

Bernhardt worked at Interior as solicitor during the George W. Bush administration, a time when the department had also been rocked by scandal over its division overseeing energy leases. He then went to lobbyist firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he worked for a client seeking to pump water from the Mojave desert to Southern California.

Many environmental activists fear that Bernhardt would be more effective than Zinke in executing Trump’s agenda. In fact, they contend he’s already doing it, having taken meetings with appropriations staff and led policy on top-tier items like overhauling the Endangered Species Act and reorganizing the department.

“Why would I want him to take over? I can’t say that I do,” said Aaron Weiss, media director with the Center for Western Priorities, told POLITICO earlier this fall.

“There are so many parallels with the Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler situation [at EPA] and the Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt situation. Andrew Wheeler knows exactly how to pull the levers of policy,” Weiss added. “Dave Bernhardt is the exact same way. He is a walking conflict of interest.”

Zinke’s tenure has been under a cloud formed by multiple investigations into his behavior at Interior. The IG office has been looking at his ties to Halliburton Chairman Dave Lesar, who met with Zinke at Interior headquarters to discuss a real estate deal involving land owned by a nonprofit Zinke established that is now controlled by his wife.

The IG is also looking into whether Zinke bowed to political pressure in blocking requests from Native American tribes to open a Connecticut casino. That probe was requested in response to POLITICO’s report on lobbying by the tribes’ business rivals.

The heat on Zinke was only going to ratchet up in January, when Democrats take control of the House and with it the power to launch new probes into Trump’s Cabinet.

While the investigations kept Zinke’s names in headlines, Bernhardt has quietly been taking on much of the responsibility for pushing Trump’s agenda, sources have said.

Bernhardt has taken a lead role in what had been Zinke’s signature policy effort — reorganizing the department and sending more staff to Western states. Bernhardt has become “the main point of contact” on the reorganization, Jay Tilton, a spokesperson for Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats, told POLITICO in October.

Requests for records have turned up scant communication from Bernhardt — raising additional fears among green groups.

The watchdog group American Oversight urged the investigators who have spent the past year and a half probing Zinke’s abundant alleged conflicts of interest and potential misdeeds to turn their attention to his replacement.

“It is high time for the glare of sunlight to focus on Deputy Secretary Bernhardt,” the group’s Austin Evers said Saturday. “We’ll see if he has the spine to answer questions that Zinke lacked.”

7 replies »

  1. Kind of wonder if this wasnt the purpose of the fumbling, corrupt ineffective heads of the EPA & the DOI in the first place – “dont look at the man behind the curtain?” Scary..


  2. From Mother Jones

    “The Guy Doing the Dirty Work” at Trump’s Interior Department is an Ex-Oil Lobbyist Straight Out of the Swamp
    “Bernhardt knows where all the skeletons are and the strings to pull.”

    With the tepid enthusiasm of an overworked elementary school principal, David Bernhardt, the second-in-command at the Department of the Interior, stood in the newly refurbished auditorium at the agency’s Washington headquarters, trying to get the staff settled down before a routine town hall with the secretary.

    Bernhardt is the perfect No. 2 to a highly visible No. 1. Zinke is the folksy charmer; Bernhardt is the strictly-business lawyer. Zinke is the relative outsider, an opportunist, and a politician; Interior watchdogs say Bernhardt is the ultimate DC swamp creature.


  3. Top Interior official facing ethics questions after meetings with casino lobbyists

    During confirmation process, David Bernhardt was described as a “walking conflict of interest.”
    MARK HAND MAY 3, 2018

    Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a quintessential revolving-door figure in Washington, met with lobbyists in late 2017 who were making the rounds on behalf of their client, a major casino and resort company that is hoping the department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs rules in its favor.

    A government affairs lobbyist for watchdog group Public Citizen told HuffPost that Bernhardt’s meetings, especially the one with Norton, “gives every appearance that Bernhardt is personally involved in negotiating public policies that directly impact MGM and his former lobby firm.”
    The Interior Department had not responded to a request for comment from ThinkProgress at the time this article was published.


  4. From PUBLIC CITIZEN (a few excerpts from a long report)

    Feeding Frenzy in Trump’s Swamp

    Lobbyists with Close Ties to Trump or Pence Bill Nearly $42 Million To Curry Favor In Nation’s Capital

    Foreign Countries Have Been Lucrative for Trump and Pence-Connected Lobbyists One week into his administration, Trump issued an executive order on ethics that ostensibly sought to fulfill promises in his “drain the swamp” pledge. It called on appointees to pledge that they would never “engage in any activity on behalf of any foreign government or foreign political party” that would require filing as a lobbyist under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.12 However, these rules did not affect staffers who worked for the Trump campaign or transition, or had other past ties to Trump or Pence. Now, lobbyists with Trump-Pence ties are earning hefty sums representing foreign interests. So far in 2017, 11 firms have earned $9.5 million in foreign lobbying revenue from accounts served by Trump or Pence-connected lobbyists, according to Public Citizen’s analysis. Seven of the 10 lobbying clients paying the most to individual lobbying firms in 2017 have been foreign interests. In some cases, Trump or Pence-connected lobbyists have taken opposing sides on international disputes, including opposing political parties in Albania as well as disputes between Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as a dispute between the Congolese government13 and its exiled opposition leader. 14 [See Tables 3 and 4] Table 3: Top 10 Most Lucrative Clients for Trump or Pence-Connected Lobbying Firms

    Click to access trump-lobbyists-report.pdf


  5. From PUBLIC CITIZEN (a few more excerpts from a long report)

    Feeding Frenzy in Trump’s Swamp

    Transition Team Member Continued Lobbying-Like Activities After He Reported That He Had
    Stopped Lobbying

    David Bernhardt, at the time the head of the natural resources division of lobbying giant
    Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, was named to lead the Trump transition for matters involving
    the Interior Department.66 Brownstein Hyatt took the unusual step of filing a lobbying disclosure
    form covering its work for the Westlands Water District for the fourth quarter of 2016 on Nov. 18,
    2016, well before the fourth quarter ended. The form included a note next to Bernhard’s name
    saying “Lobbying termination effective as of filing.

    Subsequently, Bernhardt was nominated to be the deputy secretary of the Interior Department.
    While Bernhardt’s nomination was being considered, a California investigative journalism group
    published e-mails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that appeared to indicate that
    Bernhardt continued lobbing for his client Westlands Water District after the termination date his
    firm reported.

    For instance, in an e-mail on Nov. 22, 2016, Bernhardt was invited by Westland officials to meet
    with two California Republican members of Congress to discuss legislation for the next year. “Yes,
    but we need legislation for this year,” Bernhardt responded.68 Over the Christmas holidays,
    Bernhardt offered by e-mail to consult about an “EO,” presumably an executive order. On Jan. 2,
    2017, Bernhardt sent Westland officials “a draft letter that is intended to be consistent with the
    discussion we had on the phone this afternoon.

    In response to questions to his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt testified, “I have not engaged in
    regulated lobbying activity on behalf of Westlands. A Westland official told E&E News that
    Bernhardt was providing legal advice but had “ceased all lobbying activities.

    While federal lobbying laws are sufficiently porous to permit a person to engage in lobbying
    activities without triggering a reporting requirement, Bernhardt’s actions in conjunction with
    Brownstein Hyatt’s filing were, at minimum, troubling. Bernhard was confirmed as deputy
    secretary of the Interior in July

    Click to access trump-lobbyists-report.pdf



    One of the most important things we can know about high-level officials is their detailed schedules. Who is the head of the EPA meeting with? Who’s been calling the chair of the Federal Reserve? Where has the Secretary of Education been traveling? What groups has the Attorney General been making speeches to?

    Problem is, these crucial documents are almost never readily available. They’re released only due to FOIA requests, and sometimes not even then. I’ve filed requests with dozens of agencies for the daily schedules of their leaders covering the first half of 2017 and (as of early 2018) the second half of 2017. I’ll be posting all the results here, as well as collecting the few calendars (usually from previous administrations) that are posted in the FOIA sections of some agencies’ websites. Keep checking back
    For an example of the important things that these calendars tell us, check out “E.P.A. Chief’s Calendar: A Stream of Industry Meetings and Trips Home” from the New York Times.

    Latest additions: Dept of Energy /// Dept of Agriculture /// Dept of Transportation /// EPA /// Fish & Wildlife Service /// Dept of Homeland Security /// Dept of the Treasury /// FAA /// Peace Corps /// Food & Drug Administration /// Office of Science & Technology Policy


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