Newly minted Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s staff intentionally left meetings with controversial industries off his public calendar, Roll Call reported Tuesday.
Meetings with fossil fuel and timber industry representatives, as well as those with water interests, were later scrubbed from a single Google document that functions as Bernhardt’s calendar. A spokeswoman cited “internal protocol” governing how the schedule is maintained.
Interior staff acknowledged that items on the calendar were regularly overwritten by schedulers, despite a probe from House Democrats evaluating whether such a practice is legal under open records laws.
Bernhardt responded to questions from lawmakers in February, saying he did not maintain his own schedule and was not legally required to do so.
“I have no legal obligation to personally maintain a calendar,” he wrote. “I have not personally maintained a calendar for years, and I have no intention of suddenly doing so now.”
The portions of Bernhardt’s calendar that have been released simply describe meetings as internal or external, masking meetings with representatives of industries he now regulates.
Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort previously told Roll Call in early April, “No, [Bernhardt] did not keep his personal schedule within a Google document.”
But the department recently provided more details about the secretary’s scheduling process, outlining how meeting requests would be vetted by ethics officials before being added to the schedule on the Google document. Some meetings were added to the public calendar, but others were placed on “daily cards” used to outline Bernhardt’s schedule.
In response to a request from The Hill, Vander Voort said, “Meetings were not left off the calendar. Labeling a meeting as 'external' is NOT leaving it off his calendar. Every version of the ‘daily card’ was archived.”
Vander Voort said because all records were stored within Interior’s “collaboration platform,” the agency has fulfilled its obligation under public records law.
On Monday, the top watchdog for the Interior Department confirmed it has opened an investigation into Bernhardt, citing seven complaints alleging conflicts of interest or potential ethics violations, including a request from Sens. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the League of Conservation Voters — EPA finalizing rule cutting HFCs Panic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal MORE (D-Ore.) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko Hirono11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Dems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee Senate Democrats to Garland: 'It's time to end the federal death penalty' MORE (D-Hawaii.).
Bernhardt was confirmed just last week, despite a number of complaints from lawmakers that potential conflicts of interests should, at a minimum, delay the nomination if not disqualify him entirely.
“This is exactly why I wanted a delay in Bernhardt’s consideration. We now have an Interior Secretary who has been on the job for one full business day and is already under investigation,” Wyden said in a statement.