The law and lobbying firm that previously employed President Trump’s pick to run the Interior Department saw a surge in revenue from clients hoping to influence the agency after he left for its upper ranks in 2017.
In 2018, two dozen clients paid BHFS a total of $4.8 million to lobby Interior, according to data compiled from a lobbying database maintained by the Senate. During the previous year, when Bernhardt left the firm to join the Trump administration as deputy secretary, it collected a total of $3.5 million in Interior-related revenue.
By comparison, the firm’s total income to lobby Interior in 2016 was $1.2 million. During all but one year going back to 2009, BHFS‘s Interior-related revenue never broke seven figures.
The striking uptick in the amount of lobbying revenue could provide fuel to Bernhardt’s critics as he heads toward a confirmation vote before a Senate committee on Thursday. The former lobbyist on energy and water issues is already under scrutiny by Democratic lawmakers, advocates and the agency’s inspector general over his long list of former industry clients.
It’s also a sign of how the revolving door between industry and government is still spinning two years after Trump won the presidency with a mantra to “drain the swamp” of special interests.
“Any senator thinking of casting their vote for this nomination should take a long pause and closer look at his conflicts of interests before doing so,” Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the liberal advocacy group Western Values Project, said in an email.
These yearly sums do not differentiate between money paid to BHFS to lobby Interior on a particular topic and money paid to lobby another part of the federal government, such as Congress, on the same issues.
For its part, BHFS said the firm’s Interior-related revenue went up just as Trump entered office and kick-started new work on public lands. The firm said it saw a similar boost in clients focused on the Energy Department at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term, after his administration offered new energy funding opportunities as part of its effort to stimulate the economy.
“Given this President said he would do more on projects dealing with federal lands, it is not surprising that our firm has seen an increase in available work there,” the firm said in a statement. “Brownstein has established an industry-leading team with extensive experience managing policy issues related to natural resource development at all levels of government. This combination of experience and policy change are the conditions that have historically grown our business.”
Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in an email that while the department cannot comment on the revenue of Bernhardt’s former firm, the acting secretary clears all matters involving former clients with Interior ethics experts.
“The acting secretary actively seeks and consults with the Department’s designated ethics officials for advice on particular matters involving former clients,” she said, “and the acting secretary has implemented a robust screening process to ensure that he does not meet with his former firm or former clients to participate in particular matters involving specific parties that the acting secretary has committed to recuse himself from.”
On Tuesday, Interior’s Office of Inspector General confirmed that it was reviewing allegations that Bernhardt violated the Trump administration’s ethics pledge by working on California water policies that could affect the Westlands Water District — which is still a BHFS client — while in office.
Bernhardt denies that he improperly helped the large agricultural water district, and Interior ethics officials have said his work did not constitute a conflict. Bernhardt’s ethics pledge to recuse himself from weighing in on “particular matters” affecting Westlands and three other clients ended on Aug. 1, 2018. He is still recused from taking action on specific matters affecting 22 other clients until August of this year.
In a separate development, Interior has released new scheduling documents for Bernhardt, known as daily cards, that shed new light on Bernhardt’s activities since joining Interior in August 2017. On May 24, 2018, the new records show, Bernhardt participated in a video conference call with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials on the delta smelt. The tiny and imperiled species lies at the heart of federal and state water policy in California’s Central Valley, since water diverted for the delta smelt has meant less irrigation water for Westlands and other agricultural districts.
In a floor speech Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, argued that the panel should postpone a vote on Bernhardt’s nomination given the current questions surrounding his past lobbying work.
“I do not believe the Senate should allow the Interior Department to turn into a revolving door of corruption and scandal,” Wyden said.
But Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), like other Republicans on the panel, defended Bernhardt during last’s week’s confirmation hearing as a victim of a “double standard,” noting that one of Obama’s interior secretaries once worked as a petroleum engineer and outdoor retail executive.
The increase in BHFS’s Interior-related revenue also highlights how the firm has emerged in Trump’s Washington as a well-connected lobbying outfit on the management of federal lands.
Much of that Denver-based firm’s work concerns land and tribal issues at the heart of the portfolio of the Interior Department, which altogether oversees 1 in every 5 acres of land in the United States. The department’s decisions can have far-reaching ramifications for many industries, including energy, mining and farming.
Over the course of 2017 and 2018, BHFS representatives helped arrange at least eight calls or meetings between clients and Interior officials below Bernhardt, according to calendars published on the department’s website under the Freedom of Information Act.
Even though Bernhardt has recused himself from weighing in on policies targeted at specific clients, such as the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, BHFS has continued to tout its ties to top Trump officials. “Many of the decision-makers in the agencies are former co-workers and colleagues,” BHFS wrote in a Dec. 20, 2017, letter to that district explaining why it would double its monthly fees to work on a controversial plan to tap water from the Missouri River.
And some of the firm’s clients have seen some favorable policy decisions. Among them is Cadiz, a publicly traded water company that paid BHFS $110,000 per quarter over the course of 2017 and 2018.
For decades, the company has sought to tap a massive aquifer beneath the Mojave Desert for perennially thirsty farmers and city-dwellers in California. In 2017, Interior exempted the project from a federal review imposed on it by the previous administration.
Bernhardt has formally recused himself from issues involving Cadiz.
But another BHFS client from which Bernhardt is recused, an affiliate of MGM Resorts International, won only a temporary victory under Trump.
MGM has opposed the effort of two Connecticut tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and the Mohegan, to run a casino in East Windsor, Conn. MGM Public Policy has paid BHFS a total of $560,000 since 2017 to retain it as a representative on tribal-gaming issues.
The previous Interior chief, Ryan Zinke, decided in 2017 not to grant the tribes approval, a decision they charge stemmed from political pressure. The matter has sparked a Justice Department probe into the former interior secretary.
On March 21, however, Interior published a notice in the Federal Register approving the tribes’ amended gaming compacts. This will allow them to operate a commercial casino just 12 miles away from MGM’s gambling complex in Springfield, Mass.