For years, David Bernhardt worked for a law and lobbying firm to try to influence the federal government on behalf of his clients.
Now the firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, is seeing a big payday — only after Bernhardt left.
Over the past three years, according to federal records, BHFS has quadrupled its business related to Interior, Juliet Eilperin and I reported Wednesday.
In 2018, nearly 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.
Now Bernhardt is President Trump’s pick to run the Interior Department. 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 floor speech Wednesday, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a senior member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, argued 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.
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.
Read more here:
|You are reading The Energy 202, our must-read tipsheet on energy and the environment.|
|Not a regular subscriber?|
— Nineteen senators want more federal funding for wind turbines: Hours after President Trump claimed that noise from wind turbines can cause cancer, a bipartisan group of senators said they are calling for more federal funding to support the wind industry.
Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) led the letter sent to a Senate appropriations panel that referred to the industry as an “American success story” and said more money was necessary to “ensure America remains a leader in wind energy technology,” The Post’s John Wagner reports. The letter made no mention of the president’s remarks at Tuesday night’s National Republican Congressional Committee dinner.
What Trump said: “If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75 percent in value. And they say the noise causes cancer,” Trump said. “You tell me that one, okay?” A 2014 study found “some risks to sustained exposure to noise from wind turbines, including sleep disturbance” but “dismissed possible links to several other conditions, including headaches and vertigo, and did not mention cancer," Wagner wrote.
And what Grassley said in response: In a call with reporters, Grassley called the president's remarks “idiotic.” “I’m told that the White House respects my views on a lot of issues,” Grassley said, the Des Moines Register reports. "(Trump's) comments on wind energy — not only as a president but when he was a candidate — were, first of all, idiotic, and it didn’t show much respect for Chuck Grassley as the grandfather of the wind energy tax credit.”
— 2020 watch: President Trump’s reelection campaign is reportedly looking for “climate change victories” that it can tout ahead of the election amid growing public concern about the issue, according to McClatchy.
White House officials have spoken with the EPA on behalf of the campaign in an effort to create such a list, according to the report. Specifically, the campaign is hoping to list such victories in critical battleground states, like Michigan and Florida. One source cited the president’s recent public vow at a campaign rally that he would fully fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, as well as another pledge in Florida to commit to funding repairs to Lake Okeechobee’s Herbert Hoover Dike.
For his part, Trump's campaign manager dismissed the story as "fake news":
— Meet the“Green Real Deal”: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) introduced his counter-plan to the Green New Deal. The Republican's proposal calls for addressing climate change by limiting regulation, bolstering clean energy innovation and protecting U.S. intellectual property to prevent countries from replicating clean energy technology.
“History will judge harshly my Republican colleagues who deny the science of climate change,” he said during a news conference. “Similarly, those Democrats who would use climate change as a basis to regulate out of existence the American experience will face the harsh reality that their ideas will fail.”
The Florida Republican has also taken his plan to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R-N.Y.). “The Green Real Deal does not set targets for emissions reductions or include a fee on carbon pollution,” CNBC reports. “It has just one co-sponsor, but Gaetz says he's looking for support from other lawmakers, including Democrats.”
— National Park Service grilled in Congress: House Natural Resources subcommittee lawmakers questioned National Park Service officials over the decision to keep parks open during the record government shutdown.
Park Service acting director Dan Smith defended the decision and said damage that occurred during the shutdown was “mostly” resolved, though it’s unclear what the extent of the damage is or how much it will cost, according to Courthouse New Service.
Lawmakers also questioned agency officials over a proposal to charge for costs related to protests in Washington, with Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) suggesting the agency would be running afoul of the First Amendment if it did that, The Post’s Marissa J. Lang also reports.
— Trump administration pushes back after nuclear regulators testify: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said staff from its international division was consulted over the Trump administration’s move to authorize companies to share sensitive nuclear energy information with Saudi Arabia, even after NRC commissioners testified during a Senate hearing this week that they were in the dark.
“NRC staff was consulted, and had no objections to the recommendations, before these authorizations were granted,” an Energy Department spokesman said, The Post’s Steven Mufson reports. The agencies were pushing back following the Senate hearing during which NRC Chairman Kristine L. Svinicki said she didn’t know whether the commission had been consulted. “Neither agency would say when or to what companies the authorizations were granted,” Mufson adds.
— Colorado lawmakers pass major overhaul of oil and gas regulations: The state legislature approved a bill giving local governments more authority over the regulation of drilling in the fifth-biggest oil-producing state in the nation. “Under the measure, explorers such as Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Noble Energy Inc. could face new levels of oversight from local governments, which would be able to regulate the siting of surface infrastructure and impose other rules around drilling,” Bloomberg News reports. “The legislation also shifts the focus of the state’s energy regulator from fostering oil and gas development to protecting public health, safety and the environment.”
The measure now heads to the desk of Gov. Jared Polis (D), who has been a supporter of narrowing safety standards around oil and gas development.
— How climate change is affecting the Great Barrier Reef: The world’s largest coral reef has suffered four severe “bleaching” events propelled by warmer than average sea temperatures in the past two decades. And the lasting damage has affected how the 1,400-mile-long reef may be able to heal from the stress, according to new research published in the journal Nature.
The bleaching events happen when algae that live in coral cells are expelled because of the extreme heat, causing coral to lose their color. Usually, after coral bleaching, adult corals spawn trillions of larvae that spread and revitalize the reef. But that’s no longer happening, and climate change, The Post’s Brady Dennis reports, could exacerbate this problem. “We used to think that the Great Barrier Reef was too big to fail," said Morgan Pratchett, a study co-author and professor at James Cook University, "until now."
— Post-Michael recovery in Mexico Beach: The tiny town flattened after Hurricane Michael is grappling with how to rebuild six months after the storm. Rebuilding is pricey, especially as homeowners would have to meet stricter standards to prevent damage from further storms. But even as the town’s residents have gotten inquiries from big developers and investors who want to buy up the properties instead, some city officials have insisted on rejecting those requests to keep the community’s character intact.
“Mexico Beach officials decided they wouldn’t change the city’s zoning to accommodate larger developments, and inquiries subsided,” the Wall Street Journal reports. The city also took a restrained approach to increasing wind protections. “[Mayor Al Cathey] said officials worried residents wouldn’t be able to rebuild if the requirements were too onerous. Pile on too many restrictions, and ‘you start weeding out some of the character of the city,’ he said.”
- The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis holds a hearing on "Generation Climate: Young Leaders Urge Climate Action Now."
- The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies holds a hearingon the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement budgets.
— “It looked like a scene out of World War II”: Wednesday marked 45 years since a multi-vortex tornado tore through Xenia, a small town outside Dayton, Ohio. “It looked like a scene out of World War II,” Don Taylor, a 73-year-old veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars told The Post's Matthew Cappucci. “I remember thinking, ‘All these people must be dead.’ ”