GOP Oversight report says Interior head met with group tied to former clients

GOP Oversight report says Interior head met with group tied to former clients
© Greg Nash

Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee released a report Thursday examining Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s calendar and alleged conflicts of interest in an effort to counter an ongoing investigation by Democrats.

But the report appears to confirm Bernhardt met with a group he recused himself from dealing with as part of his ethics pledge.

Democrats on the Oversight Committee have yet to release a report, but Republicans launched their own probe after they said Democrats launched an investigation without consulting them and issued an “unprecedented and overbroad initial document request.”

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Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for a number of oil and gas companies, has been under fire from Democrats and environmental groups since joining the Trump administration as deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior (DOI). Democrats argue his background leaves him with a wealth of conflicts of interest, and have accused him of violating public records laws with how he manages his calendar.

The GOP report lists a number of findings, the majority of which state that, “contrary to allegations,” Bernhardt is not mismanaging his calendar, obfuscating meetings or violating ethics laws. Republicans instead accused Oversight Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsMaya Rockeymoore Cummings, Elijah Cummings's widow, will run for his House seat Former NAACP president to run for Cummings's House seat Elijah Cummings's widow 'thinking carefully' about running for his old seat MORE (D-Md.) and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) of using “cherry-picked information to create a false impression" about transparency at Interior.

“This interim staff report sets the record straight about the allegations levied against Bernhardt and DOI. The record is clear that contrary to public allegations of wrongdoing, DOI and Bernhardt have acted appropriately and ethically in maintaining and preserving the Secretary’s calendar records, as well as making them publicly available,” the GOP report said.

But Bernhardt's critics say the report shows he took meetings with former clients.

One part of the report aims to dissect a meeting of interest to Democrats involving Bernhardt and nine oil and gas companies.

That included the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association (LMOGA), a division of the U.S. Oil and Gas Association (USOGA).

“LMOGA appears to have an association to an entity on Bernhardt’s recusal list, U.S. Oil and Gas Association, but it does not appear that this association would require a recusal in all circumstances,” the report said.

Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities, which has criticized Bernhardt’s ethics record, said the secretary should not meet with a division of a group on his recusal list.

“They don’t ‘appear to have an affiliation’ — they are part of USOGA,” Weiss said. “They are on Bernhardt's recusal list.”

A spokesperson for Interior said another oil company, Statoil, did not attend the meeting because of advice from Interior ethics officials.

"Secretary Bernhardt is and always has been committed to upholding his ethical responsibilities, and he takes his ethics pledge very seriously. He seeks advice from career ethics officials before taking any meeting involving external parties and strictly follows their advice and guidance," a spokesman for the agency told The Hill.

The Hill has reached out to Oversight Republicans for further comment on the LMOGA meeting.

Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee did not respond to request for comment, but Oversight Democrats say the report from their Republican colleagues left many questions unanswered.

“The Republican Staff Report provides cover for the Trump Administration’s secrecy. The Committee still has unanswered questions about who Secretary David Bernhardt met with, when, and why. The Committee is also concerned about how the Department maintains records of Secretary Bernhardt’s meetings, as well as its compliance with FOIA, which remains a serious problem,” Cummings said in a statement to The Hill.

Interior has been under fire for a number of actions critics say make the department less transparent, from a public records policy that would give political hires more influence over what documents are released to leaving controversial meetings off of Bernhardt’s public calendar.

Interior previously outlined how meeting requests would be vetted by ethics officials before being added to the schedule on a Google document. Some meetings were added to the public calendar, but others were placed on “daily cards” used to outline Bernhardt’s schedule.

“Bernhardt’s calendars are not created to be public documents, but instead used as an internal method of allocating his time,” the report said.

House Democrats have questioned whether the method violates public record-keeping laws, but Interior said an outside review found the process did not result is destruction of federal records.

"We are pleased the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) found the Department of the Interior to be in full compliance with records management laws. We appreciate their thorough and professional review in response to Congressional inquiries,” Interior told The Hill in July.

The GOP report includes high praise for Bernhardt, saying he “is improving the ‘anemic’ ethics environment of the Obama administration” and repeatedly lists witness testimony saying Bernhardt has not violated ethics or public record keeping laws.

Weiss said the report cherry-picks interviews and hopes that all of them will be released publicly.

“This is truly a ridiculous document that reads like it was written by Bernhardt himself,” he said.

Updated at 5:56 p.m.