Sunday, 27 Sep 2020

Senate Expected to Confirm Bernhardt as Interior Chief Amid Calls for Investigations Into His Conduct

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WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday is expected to confirm David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and agribusiness industries, as secretary of interior. The vote coincides with over a dozen calls from Democrats, government watchdogs and others for formal investigations into Mr. Bernhardt’s past conduct.

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 serve as the nation’s senior steward of its 500 million acres of public land and vast coastal waters.

Mr. Bernhardt served as the deputy to Mr. Trump’s first interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, and has drawn a cascade of criticism about his on-the-job ethics. Mr. Zinke himself 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 entered public office.

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.

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 previous 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?”

In particular, 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.

In addition, lawmakers have sought a formal probe 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.

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Coral Davenport covers energy and environmental policy, with a focus on climate change, from the Washington bureau. She joined The Times in 2013 and previously worked at Congressional Quarterly, Politico and National Journal. @CoralMDavenport Facebook

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