“At least eight senators, all Democrats, and four government ethics watchdog groups have requested that the Interior Department’s inspector general open formal investigations into various aspects of Mr. Bernhardt’s conduct…”
WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted to confirm David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and agribusiness industries, as secretary of the interior. The confirmation of Mr. Bernhardt to his new post coincided with calls from more than a dozen Democrats and government watchdogs for formal investigations into his past conduct.
Senators voted 56-41, largely along party lines, in favor of Mr. Bernhardt’s confirmation. Three Democrats — Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Senate Energy Committee; Senator Krysten Sinema of Arizona; and Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico — supported Mr. Bernhardt, as did one independent, Senator Angus King of Maine.
As interior secretary, Mr. Bernhardt, who has already played a central role in designing many of Mr. Trump’s policies for expanding drilling and mining, will now serve as the nation’s senior steward of its 500 million acres of public land and vast coastal waters.
Mr. Bernhardt was the deputy to Mr. Trump’s first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, who resigned this year amid allegations of ethical misconduct.
At least eight senators, all Democrats, and four government ethics watchdog groups have requested that the Interior Department’s inspector general open formal investigations into various aspects of Mr. Bernhardt’s conduct. Separately, at least one Democratic senator and one government watchdog group have requested that the United States attorney’s office investigate whether Mr. Bernhardt may have committed civil or criminal violations before he joined the Trump administration.
Mr. Bernhardt has testified to Congress that he has made an effort to be ethical in all his work. “I believe public trust is a public responsibility, and maintaining ethical culture is critical,” he said at his Senate confirmation hearing last month.
He also said that he has sought to strengthen the culture of ethics at the Interior Department, which became notorious for corruption scandals during the George W. Bush administration, when the deputy secretary of the interior, J. Steven Griles, was sentenced to prison for lying to a Senate committee about his ties to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. At that time, Mr. Bernhardt was the Interior Department’s solicitor.
“I know how important and how devastating it is when folks at the top act in an unethical manner,” he said.
The questions about Mr. Bernhardt’s conduct do not appear to have swayed Republican support for Mr. Trump’s nominee. Republican leaders have praised Mr. Bernhardt’s experience in the Bush administration.
“Mr. Bernhardt has significant private practice experience as well as a past record of service at the Department,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, in a statement. “Along the way, he’s earned the respect of those who rely on the public lands the Department of the Interior is charged to oversee, from Native American leaders to sportsmen’s groups. He’s been praised as a ‘proven leader’ who ‘acts with integrity’ and has ‘the right approach and skill set.’”
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said: “It still amazes me. Donald Trump campaigns on cleaning up the swamp and he does exactly the opposite when in office. An oil and gas lobbyist as head of the Department of Interior? My God. That’s an example of the swampiness of Washington if there ever was one. And when are Donald Trump’s supporters going to understand this?”
Environmental groups who opposed Mr. Bernhardt’s confirmation were not surprised that Senator Manchinn — whose state, West Virigina, is rich in coal and who often votes with Republicans on energy and environmental policy matters — supported Mr. Bernhardt. But many environmentalists expressed anger that Senator Heinrich, who has presented himself as an environmental champion, particularly on issues of climate change, backed the confirmation of a former oil lobbyist to oversee public lands.
This week, the Western Values Project, a conservation advocacy organization, ran a television ad campaign in New Mexico urging Senator Heinrich to vote against Mr. Bernhardt.
Senator Heinrich said that, as a lawmaker from a state where roughly one-third of the land is owned and operated by the Interior Department, it was important to him to have a permanent, confirmed secretary at the head of the agency, even if the person in that role was not his first choice.
“I need to be able to pick up the phone and talk to the secretary of interior on a regular basis. I’m not going to be able to get the interior secretary I wanted. We didn’t win in 2016,” he said, referring to the presidential race. “But in New Mexico, I’m going to put my state and protection of public lands in my state first.”
The National Ocean Industries Association, a lobbying organization for offshore drilling companies, including many of Mr. Bernhardt’s former clients, cheered his confirmation. “His unparalleled depth of experience at the department and knowledge of energy and conservation policies will serve our nation’s public lands and resources well,” said the group’s president, Randall Luthi.
Offhore oil companies have been working closely with Mr. Bernhardt over the past several months as he develops the administration’s plan to open up most United States coastal waters to offshore drilling. A draft of that plan was made public last year, and Mr. Bernhardt is expected to put forth a final plan later this year.
Government watchdog groups criticized the ties between Mr. Bernhardt and his former clients. “We know with absolute certainty that Bernhardt will be a horrible secretary, because he had been a catastrophic deputy secretary — eager to do the bidding of his former clients, without regard to the impact on the public lands, endangered species or public health,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, which has filed a complaint against Mr. Bernhardt with the Interior Department’s ethics office.
In addition, ethics specialists and Democratic lawmakers have requested that the Interior Department’s inspector general explore the findings of a New York Times investigation in February that revealed that Mr. Bernhardt, while in office, had personally directed a policy to weaken endangered species protections on a California fish, a change that could directly benefit one of his former lobbying clients, the Westlands Water District.
They have also sought an investigation based on a separate Times report detailing previously undisclosed emails indicating that, in the months before he was nominated to office, Mr. Bernhardt continued to lobby for the Westlands Water District even after he filed official papers saying that he had ended his lobbying activities. Federal law requires lobbyists to disclose their activities.
Lawmakers have also sought a formal inquiry into the findings of a report in the Times in March showing that Mr. Bernhardt had intervened to block the release of a scientific report revealing the threat presented by three widely used pesticides to hundreds of endangered species, including the kit fox and the seaside sparrow.
The inspector general’s office has not confirmed that any investigations of Mr. Bernhardt are underway.