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Chairs Grijalva and Jared Huffman Request Documents on Bernhardt's Ties with Westlands
by Dan Bacher
Friday Apr 5th, 2019 2:57 PM
“Serious questions have been raised regarding the potential conflicts between his [Bernhardt’s] work as a top official at the Department of the Interior (DOI) and his previous work as a lobbyist and lawyer with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck representing the Westlands Water District," wrote Representatives Grijalva and Huffman.
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A day after the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 14-6 to move the nomination of Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to a floor vote, Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Water, Oceans, & Wildlife Subcommittee Chair Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) today launched a new inquiry seeking documents associated with Bernhardt and California’s powerful Westlands Water District, a former client of Bernhardt’s.

"Serious questions have been raised in filings with the Inspector General and the Office of Government Ethics regarding the conflicts between his work as a lobbyist and lawyer for the irrigation district and now as a top official in the Trump administration," according to a press release from Grijalva and Huffman.

The inquiry comes in the wake of new details released by the New York Times yesterday revealing that Bernhardt had continued to associate with the water district at least until his deputy secretary nomination on April 28, 2017. Within four months of his confirmation as Interior Deputy Secretary, Bernhardt pushed for a decision that would be beneficial for his former client. 

“A 2017 invoice indicates that David Bernhardt, President Trump’s choice to lead the Interior Department, continued to lobby for a major client several months after he filed official papers saying that he had ended his lobbying activities,” said Times reporter Coral Davenport. 

“The bill for Mr. Bernhardt’s services, dated March 2017 and labeled ‘Federal Lobbying,’ shows, along with other documents, Mr. Bernhardt working closely with the Westlands Water District as late as April 2017, the month Mr. Trump nominated him to his current job, deputy interior secretary. In November 2016, Mr. Bernhardt had filed legal notice with the federal government formally ending his status as lobbyist,” Davenport wrote.

In the letter sent today to the Westlands Water District, Reps. Huffman and Grijalva wrote: 

“Serious questions have been raised regarding the potential conflicts between his [Bernhardt’s] work as a top official at the Department of the Interior (DOI) and his previous work as a lobbyist and lawyer with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck representing the Westlands Water District. These potential conflicts have been described in national news reports and in numerous complaints filed with the Inspector General and Office of Government Ethics. It is essential that the Congress and the American people have a full and complete record of the relationship between Mr. Bernhardt and Westlands so these questions can be answered, and potential conflicts of interest can be addressed.” 

The letter requests all documents associated with David Bernhardt and his work relating to his former water district client, "including his work to weaken Endangered Species Act protections and to pursue funding for the raising of Shasta Dam over the objections of the State of California."  

You can see the full text of the letter here.

Fishermen, Tribes, conservationists and environmental justice advocates are strongly opposing Bernhardt's nomination.

"The vote by the  Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to move the nomination of Bernhardt to a floor vote is a real disappointment," said Noah Oppenheim, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA). "Bernhardt is one of the most compromised appointees yet of the entire Trump administration and fishermen are going to pay for his advancement."

In response to my email to the Westlands Water District asking for their comments on the letter sent by Representatives Grijalva and Huffman seeking documents associated with David Bernhardt and the Westlands Water District, I received the following response.

"Thank you for reaching out to me. The District has not received the letter and until it is received, the District cannot comment," wrote Diana C. Giraldo, Public Affairs Representative, Westlands Water District.  

Bernhardt and his former lobbying firm have donated almost $1 million to senators who will vote on his confirmation since 2013, according to a MapLight investigation: https://maplight.org/story/interior-nominee-and-his-lobbying-firm-have-donated-almost-1-million-to-senators/

"A MapLight review of campaign finance data found that Bernhardt, Brownstein Hyatt employees and the firm’s political action committee contributed more than $225,000 to members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee between 2013 and 2018," MapLight wrote. "The firm and its employees also donated more than $960,000 to current members of the Senate, who will cast the final vote on Bernhardt’s confirmation."

In related news, Rep. Huffman (D-San Rafael) yesterday introduced legislation in the House to strengthen conflict-of-interest standards for political appointees in the executive branch, closing loopholes and elevating into federal law ethics standards that are currently up to the President to determine and enforce.

Huffman said the bill builds on H.R. 1, "House Democrats’ sweeping democracy reform legislation to end the culture of corruption in Washington" that passed the House in March, and "responds to the news that Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt continued to work as a lobbyist for the Westlands Water District for several months after he claimed to have stopped lobbying."

“Acting Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, President Trump’s nominee to be the most powerful regulator overseeing federal lands and waters, is a poster child for the corruption of the Trump administration,” said Rep. Huffman. “Congress must hold the executive branch accountable, and the law should not allow a walking conflict of interest like David Bernhardt to participate in the same agency decisions that he was recently paid to influence as a lobbyist. The Executive Appointee Ethics Improvement Act will shine a light on the troubling conflicts in the administration, stop the revolving door, and help ensure political appointees can’t use their public role for their own private financial gain.”

The latest revelations about Bernhardt’s enormous conflicts of interest take place at a critical time for Central Valley salmon, Delta smelt and other San Francisco Bay Delta fish populations. For the first time ever, a fish survey that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) conducts every autumn turned up zero Delta smelt throughout the monitoring sites in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in September, October, November and December 2018.

The smelt, a 2 to 3 inch fish listed under both federal and state Endangered Species Acts that was once the most abundant fish in the Delta, is found only in the Delta estuary. It is regarded as an indicator species, a fish that demonstrates the health of the entire Delta ecosystem. For more information, go to: http://www.dailykos.com/...

To take action to oppose Bernhardt’s nomination, go here: actionnetwork.org/

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