Energy & Environment

Democrats prod Trump Interior nominee over lobbying work


Senators dug into the background of an Interior Department nominee on Thursday, raising concerns about conflicts of interest and his time in the George W. Bush administration.

David Bernhardt faced the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee three weeks after President Trump nominated him to be the Interior Department’s deputy secretary. 

Democrats used a hearing to probe his work as a lobbyist and the possible influence he could have over government decisions involving his former clients.

“Mr. Bernhardt is a now seeking to come back through this revolving door and be part of regulating and overseeing the same issues for which he was lobbying in the private sector,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said. 

{mosads}Cantwell based her questioning around any role Bernhardt might have played in Trump administration decisions so far this year.

One of Bernhardt’s firm’s clients, Cadiz, Inc., received federal permission in March to move forward with a water project that had previously been denied by the Obama administration. 

Bernhardt said he was not involved in that decision or others made so far this year. But Cantwell said he should recuse himself from any decisions involving former clients for his entire tenure, not just the one-year period established by administration ethics rules.

“If I get a whiff of something coming why that involves a former client or my firm, I will make that item go straight to the ethics office and whatever they decide, that will be it for me,” Bernhardt said. 

Bernhardt serves as chairman of the natural resources law practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a position that earned him at least $1.1 million last year from both the firm and lobbying work for more than a dozen energy and mining firms, according to financial disclosure forms. 

Bernhardt has said he will recuse himself from deciding matters involving his former clients for up to one year. 

“I have signed the exact same agreements my predecessors have, and I will stand by that,” he said. 

Democrats also raised concerns about Bernhardt’s history in the Bush administration’s Interior Department, where he served for eight years. 

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) asked about his approach to science, noting reports that Interior changed scientific research related to oil drilling during his tenure. 

“I’ve looked at your long history of lobbying for oil and gas stakeholders and the fact that you’ve even litigated against the Interior Department on behalf of private interests,” she said.

Bernhardt said he wasn’t involved in changing scientific data. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), also noting Bernhardt’s career working for oil and gas firms, asked about his use of science as a federal official.

“We’re going to look at the science, whatever it is, but policy decisions are made,” Bernhardt said. “This president ran, and he won, on a particular policy perspective. That perspective’s not going to change, to the extent we have the discretion under the law to follow it.”

Despite Democrats’ concerns, the hearing was less contentious than was expected, given the intense opposition Bernhardt’s nomination has garnered.

Greens and environmental groups have blasted Bernhardt over his lobbying background, worrying he will favor energy and mining firms over conservation interests.

On Wednesday, 150 groups sent a letter to Congress calling Bernhardt a “walking conflict of interest” given his private-sector history.

But Republicans lined up to support Bernhardt’s nomination on Thursday, saying his experience in the Interior Department and his expertise in energy and environmental policy makes him qualified for the position. 

“I believe Mr. Bernhardt is an excellent choice for deputy secretary,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the committee, said.

Bernhardt’s backers looked to boost his conservation credentials, passing out letters supporting his nomination from western water associations, conservation organizations, tribes, sportsmen’s groups and others. 

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who introduced Bernhardt, called him a “a strong voice for the West and extremely well-qualified for the nomination to be deputy secretary.”

Gardner looked to relieve concerns about Bernhardt’s lobbying history. 

“There have been other nominees considered by this committee who have practiced public law before and between public service appointments to Interior,” he said. 

“Dave Bernhardt’s integrity and ability are two of his strongest qualifications for this nomination.”

Tags Al Franken Cory Gardner Debbie Stabenow Interior Department Lisa Murkowski Maria Cantwell

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