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Ethics watchdog, Democratic senators call for probe of Interior chief Bernhardt’s work on water policy

Citing his past lobbying work, Campaign Legal Center and two senators allege Bernhardt’s involvement in Western water issues violates Trump ethics pledge

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt poses for a photograph in the library at the Department of the Interior October 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. He used to come to the public library when he was in law school. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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An ethics watchdog group filed a complaint Thursday with the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, alleging that Acting Secretary David Bernhardt violated federal ethics rules by working to weaken protections for imperiled fish species and to expand California farmers’ access to water, even though he once lobbied on behalf of a massive agricultural water district that stood to benefit from the changes.

The request came on the same day that two Democratic senators, Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), asked Interior’s inspector general and designated ethics official to look into the matter.

The calls for an independent probe, based in part on stories published in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other outlets, centers on Bernhardt’s role in Interior’s push to conduct an environmental analysis of proposed changes to federal and state water projects in California, a move that could free up more water for his former client, Westlands Water District. Bernhardt, whom President Trump has tapped to serve as his next Interior secretary, represented the water district at the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck before joining the administration a year and-a-half ago.

Under an executive order President Trump signed days after being inaugurated, his appointees must sign an ethics pledge that requires them to recuse themselves from specific matters involving their former employers and clients for two years. Bernhardt, who is recused from weighing in on particular matters involving Westlands Water District for two years, has said that he cleared his involvement in the California water policy with a department ethics official.

“For years, Bernhardt lobbied to undermine protections for endangered species on behalf of his lobbying clients, and he continued working on the same exact issues after entering government,” said Paul Smith, vice president of Campaign Legal Center, which filed the complaint. “Bernhardt should be subject to the same high ethical standards as any other Interior employee, and the Inspector General should investigate this fully.”

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The nation’s largest agricultural water district, Westlands has worked for years to change state and federal water plans that prioritize water supplies for fish species protected under the Endangered Species Act, including the delta smelt and Chinook salmon. Even after deregistering as a lobbyist for the water district in November 2016, according to public records, Bernhardt helped draft an executive order on the issue and corresponded with congressional staffers on legislative language aimed at expanding Westlands’ access to federal and state water projects.

In November 2017, Bernhardt began working with Interior staff on a plan to draft a new environmental impact statement of reallocating the water supplied through the federal Central Valley Project and California’s State Water Project. In January, the department’s Bureau of Reclamation published a biological assessment analyzing the plan’s impact.

Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in an email that Bernhardt’s work on California water rights did not pose a conflict because allocating water rights in California affects several parties beyond his former client. She cited a Feb. 19, 2019 memo, signed by two Interior ethics officials, which concludes that work on a draft environmental analysis of these water projects did not constitute a “particular matter” that would be covered by Bernhardt’s ethics pledge.

“The Acting Secretary is fully in compliance with his recusal agreements,” she said, adding, “the Acting Secretary has not participated in any particular matter on which he lobbied within the two years before the date of his appointment nor has he participated” in an other matters that could constitute a conflict of interest.

In the Feb. 19 memo, Interior ethics officials write that Bernhardt’s work on the environmental analysis does not qualify as “a particular matter... therefore, DOI employees would not be required to recuse from participation” in it.

Asked about the requests for an inquiry into Bernhardt’s actions, Interior Inspector General Nancy DiPaolo said in an email, “Today the OIG received a letter from Senators Warren and Blumenthal, as well as one from the Campaign Legal Center and we are reviewing both requests.”