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Former Interior secretary didn’t violate lobbying laws, watchdog finds

In a report, the Interior Department’s internal watchdog said it found no evidence that David Bernhardt violated lobbying laws with a California water client

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt testifies before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Washington on March 10, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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The Interior Department’s internal watchdog on Thursday said it found no evidence that former secretary David Bernhardt violated lobbying laws regarding a former client, a California water district that is the nation’s largest agricultural water supplier, although he continued to advise them on legislative matters on occasion after he stopped being their lobbyist.

The former client, the Westlands Water District, reached a deal with the federal government in 2020 — while Bernhardt was interior secretary — to get permanent access to irrigation water for farmers and rural communities along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Last fall, a California judge declined to validate the contract, which has been criticized by environmentalists as a sweetheart deal favoring corporate agriculture in the drought-parched state.

Westlands, a public entity based in Fresno, Calif., has said Bernhardt was not involved in the discussions that led to the contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Bernhardt deregistered as a lobbyist for Westlands in November 2016. The inspector general’s office was investigating allegations that Bernhardt continued lobbying for the water district (which the report does not name) even after he had joined the federal government as deputy secretary of Interior in August 2017.

The report found that Bernhardt continued to advise water district officials “on their interactions with the legislative branch” and that he joined at least one conference call with congressional staff after he had deregistered as a lobbyist. But the report concluded that “the conduct we identified, standing alone, did not show that Mr. Bernhardt acted as a lobbyist within the meaning of the” 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act.

The report added that it faced obstacles in gathering information. Bernhardt declined to sit for an interview with investigators, the report said, without conditions that were outside the office’s normal protocols.

Bernhardt’s attorney, Danny Onorato, said in a statement that the former secretary “cooperated extensively” with the investigation, including a 26-page submission “which proved that he was fully compliant with the law.”

“Despite its shortcomings, the report completely vindicates Secretary Bernhardt,” the statement read.

A spokeswoman for Westlands said it had no comment on the Inspector General’s report.

The report said it obtained a March 2017 invoice to the water district from Bernhardt’s former law firm for more than $25,000 for “Federal Lobbying.” About four months later, Bernhardt emailed a water district official saying that the lobbying reference was “my error” and that “the matter name on the invoice should have been modified to more accurately reflect the scope of the activities, and not simply say Federal Lobbying,” according to the report. Investigators were told by the water district that Bernhardt served as a consultant after deregistering as a lobbyist.

“Once again, David Bernhardt has shown who he truly is — a swamp creature who thinks the rules don’t apply to him,” Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement.

California is in the third consecutive year of a severe drought, and the first three months of this year have been the driest in the state’s recorded history. Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which supplies drinking water to millions of residents, has been at about a third of normal levels. With the summer approaching, California’s two largest reservoirs — Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville — are already at “critically low” levels, the U.S. Drought Monitor said in a report this month.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California announced last month the most severe cutbacks to outdoor water use in its history to try to conserve amid the dwindling supplies. The restrictions affect some 6 million people in the Los Angeles area.

The supply contract that Westlands reached with the federal government was criticized by environmentalists and others as taking away government-subsidized water from the general public and giving it to corporate farmers. The water comes from the Central Valley Project, a network of dams, canals, and reservoirs run by the federal government that also supplies water to the San Francisco Bay area and elsewhere. The allocation to Westlands was roughly twice as large as what Los Angeles residents consume in a year.

Westlands has disputed the allegations it received special treatment.

“The suggestion that the permanent nature of the proposed Westlands repayment contract makes it an ‘unusually good deal’ is simply false,” the district wrote in a fact sheet about the deal in 2020.

In October, Fresno County Superior Court Judge D. Tyler Tharpe declined to validate the contract. An earlier judge’s ruling also did not validate the contract and said the deal lacked sufficient notice to the public and as well as details on payment to the government.

The Westlands spokeswoman, Elizabeth Jonasson, said the rulings are under appeal. She added that Westlands and Reclamation continue to follow the terms of the contract.

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