Ryan Zinke, of course, was Trump’s ethically-challenged Secretary of the Interior, who resigned under pressure as the ethics investigations mounted. Not before working grievous harm to the lands, airs and waters he had sworn to protect, of course.
Trump’s nominee to succeed Zinke is David Bernhardt, a career lobbyist for Big Agriculture. Bernhardt was a partner in Denver, Colorado-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. He left that firm when Trump nominated Bernhardt to be deputy secretary of the Interior Department. Now he’s Trump’s pick to succeed Zinke as Secretary of the interior.
In November 2016, Bernhardt had filed legal notice with the federal government formally ending his status as a lobbyist. And yet as the New York Times has documented, Bernhardt continued to act as a lobbyist after that date, even after he was nominated to be Deputy Secretary in April 2016. He billed clients for his lobbying activities — a $25,000 a month retainer — as late as March 2016, five months after telling the federal government he had stopped.
Faith Vander Voort, the spokesperson for Benhardt’s old law firm, told the Times in an email that the invoice had been labeled incorrectly and that the documents did not describe lobbying activity.
David Bernhardt did not engage in regulated lobbying activities for Westlands Water District from the date he de-registered forward,” she wrote. “Mr. Bernhardt engaged in various legal services that supported the senior employees and Directors of the Board of Westlands Water District, who are public officials, operating in their official capacity. These efforts do not constitute regulated lobbying activity.
Among lawyers, this is called a red bottle/blue bottle distinction. As when an earlier case with near identical facts wrecks your argument, and you can only tell the judge, “Well, in that case there was a blue bottle in the window, and in my case it was a red bottle.” In other words, it’s a distinction without a difference. And that’s what Ms. Vander Voort makes defending Bernhardt’s lie: a red bottle/blue bottle distinction.
Note: The Senate Interior Committee is chaired by Lisa Murkowski (R, Who Knows?). At the confirmation hearing, Senator Murkowski said about Bernhardt’s ethics violations: “I am aware of no substantiation of them whatsoever. I would be stunned if they would be substantiated. We have known about this previous work he had at Westlands.” Senator, here’s the link.
Back when he was a lobbyist (wink, wink, nod, nod), one of Bernhardt’s major clients was Westlands Water District, a consortium of some 700 agriculture businesses in the San Joaquin Valley in California. They want more water for irrigation. Back when he was still a lobbyist (wink, wink), he worked hard t to relax the Endangered Species Act, because it restricted the amount of water available to his clients for irrigation. Delta Smelt, an endangered fish species endemic to the San Joaquin and Sacramento River Delta, need the water to survive. So what was one of the first things Bernhardt did when becoming Deputy Secretary? Lucky guess; he sought to relax the Endangered Species Act to give his former (wink, wink) clients more water.
And how about his old law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck? Why they have quadrupled their earnings from lobbying the Department of the Interior. In 2016, BHFS made a paltry $1.2 million on DOI lobbying. In 2018, revenue had jumped to $4.8 million. Of course, that’s just the perception of increased access (wink, wink).
WC is certain that Bernhardt wouldn’t be doing favors for his long-time partners at BHFS because that would be, you know, unethical. Like Ryan Zinke. The guy he’s replacing. And can we remember that the ethics laws set the minimum standards, not the ceiling. We can and should expect better.
Lying about what you do and what you have done? It’s practically a job requirement in the Trump Administration.