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Public Citizen Calls on Interior Department to Investigate Whether Acting Secretary Bernhardt Violated Trump’s Executive Order on Ethics

Feb. 12, 2019

Public Citizen Calls on Interior Department to Investigate Whether Acting Secretary Bernhardt Violated Trump’s Executive Order on Ethics

Bernhardt Lobbied to Undermine Endangered Species Act; Now He Is Sabotaging It From the Inside

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of the Interior must investigate whether David Bernhardt, acting secretary of the department, violated two different provisions of an ethics executive order issued by the president who appointed him, Public Citizen said today in a complaint to the agency.

A recent New York Times article detailed how Bernhardt spent years in the private sector working for a water district to weaken the Endangered Species Act in California. In an interview, Bernhardt acknowledged that, four months after joining the department, he directed David Murillo, Interior’s senior water resources official, to weaken protections for smelt fish and the Chinook salmon, to free up river water for agriculture – the same issues on which he had lobbied.

Further, Bernhardt’s actions appear to directly and substantially benefit the Westlands Water District, a state chartered organization, as well as its members, who were Bernhardt’s clients.

Paragraph 6 of President Donald Trump’s ethics Executive Order (No. 13770) prohibits appointees from taking official actions in any matter that is directly and substantially related to their former employers or clients; and Paragraph 7 prohibits federal appointees from overseeing the same issue areas they lobbied on in the two years before they were appointed.

“The ethics executive order was designed to stop precisely these types of conflicts of interest: lobbying the government on an issue one day, then joining the government the next and continuing the effort desired by the previous client,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “This appears to be a blatant violation of the order.”

Today’s complaint echoes one Public Citizen filed on March 20, 2018, expressing concern that Bernhardt’s involvement, as deputy secretary of the Interior, in issues on which he had previously lobbied appeared to violate Trump’s ethics executive order. The department has not responded to that complaint.

Bernhardt served as a registered lobbyist at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP from 2011 through 2016 and lobbied on issues involving development projects and environmental issues, including the Bureau of Reclamation, the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, and energy and water regulations, all areas he has jurisdiction over as an official in the Interior Department.

Bernhardt’s involvement in these issue areas at the Interior Department appears to run afoul of Paragraph 7 ethics restrictions that prohibit a former lobbyist appointed to a position in the Trump administration from overseeing the same specific issue areas he lobbied on within the two years before his appointment. Pursuing official actions that directly and substantially benefit Bernhardt’s former client, Westlands Water District, seems to run afoul of Paragraph 6 of the order.

Read the full complaint (PDF).