Zinke's Interior: just another fool for big business
The scene first described in this pair of Guardian articles about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's roman-triumph arrival in Washington would have been enlivened with a little translation. Zinke's horse is called "Tonto," which means idiot or fool. The only problem with the image was that the fool the developer ion the White House has unleashed on the American environment was in the saddle, not under it. For "destructive ool" is one thing we call a person who accepts an office to defend the Public Trust and, in the worst faith, defiles that trust, breaking the environmental laws and regulations put in place to protect the Public Trust. At another level, we call any person who behaves that way a fool for not seeing the science describing the global warming upon us and doing everything in his very powerful position to reverse the human behavior that has caused it ... like burning coal for energy.
It's such an old story in any market economy: a law or regulation that obstructs the previous behavior of any industry will create another industry -- a well funded lobby in the national capitol to weaken, undermine and ultimately, if possible, destroy the law or regulation that cuts into its profits. Rewards abound for elected officials and staff to betray the Public Trust and look respectable as Hell as they do it.
But Zinke really is a fool and evidently just a yet-to-be-indicted crook. Perhaps he will trade his office in return for an end to criminal investigation.
This may well pave the way for the assent of David Bernhardt to the top position in department of interior. The Guardian missed Berhardt's close ties with Westlands Water District, for which he operated as a lobbyist for five years.
David Bernhardt, a former oil, gas and mining lobbyist who worked at interior during the George W Bush administration and knows his way around the agency. Bernhardt embodies the revolving door between industry and interior, and has already raised eyebrows over likely conflicts of interest. He may prove to be more effective at doing the job that Zinke started, but will have to face a greater degree of oversight due to recent election results. -- Clement, The Guardian, Nov. 12, 2018
“This is the poster child of the swamp that people thought would be drained by this president,” said Huffman. “Instead it is being restocked by more swamp people.” -- Leavenworth, Mcclatchydc.Com, May 17, 2017.
Bernhardt is the epitome of a successful player in the Great Lobby Game having found a client, Westlands, which has far exceeded its lawful allotments of irrigation water through the years by corrupting congressmen and resource agencies, most under the aegis of the department of interior. And today one of their most successful lobbyists is poised to take over the agency while a former assistant general manager, Jason Peltier, now manages the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which conveys its water.
It's a dark picture for the San Joaquin Valley environment but maybe the mood of Throw-the-bums-out will strengthen as a result of the elections. Note: y. The re-election of grand supporter of Westlands, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Somewhere in the district, finally ran out of luck and was defeated by Democrat Josh Harder. To add the shadows that make this portrait real, Rep, Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, won handily against a hard-charging opponent, a prosecutor, no less. And Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, narrowly won reelection in the district which includes Westlands. -- blj
The Zinke effect: how the US interior department became a tool of big business
Trump’s interior secretary has been remaking the agency charged with protecting public lands as an ally of big energy, e-mails and records reveal
Since his first day on the job, when he surrounded himself with a National Park Service police escort and rode through Washington DC on a white-nosed horse named Tonto, the US interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, has exhibited a flair for ostentation.
Not long after taking office in March 2017, the new secretary started flying a special flag, adorned with the agency’s bison seal, above the interior department’s elegant New Deal-era headquarters. At a cost of more than $2,000, he also commissioned commemorative coins emblazoned with his name to hand out to visitors and staff. He replaced the doors in his office to the tune of more than $130,000, and installed a hunting-themed arcade game in the department’s cafeteria.
Yet to some longtime civil servants working at interior headquarters, this flashy behavior was merely a distraction from graver concerns.
“There was a lot of eye-rolling and embarrassment about the flag and the horse and all of the ridiculousness,” said a former senior employee who left last year and requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. For some, the dominant emotional tenor at the time was “fear and anxiety” as Zinke and his team ushered in “dramatic change” at the interior department.
“All the new administration was interested in was their checklist for dismantling regulations and weakening environmental and land use protections,” said the former staffer. “Instead of asking why a senator or lobbyist or CEO was asking for a special favor and whether or not it was allowed under the law, this administration wanted to know why the special favor wasn’t already done and which deep state employee was standing in the way.”
Despite his public persona as a folksy Montanan with a Boy Scout’s penchant for pennants and horses, Zinke has taken shrewd and aggressive steps to transform from the inside a department whose 70,000 employees manage the country’s treasured national parks and its endangered species, in addition to overseeing vast energy and mineral deposits on at least 500m acres of public land.
During Zinke’s first months in office, he reassigned at least 25 senior officials at the department, a move that led some of the affected staff to question whether they were being punished for past work on subjects such as climate change, and which prompted at least one high-profile resignation. He publicly questioned the allegiance of other of his newly inherited employees, saying he had “30% of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag”.
Most importantly, Zinke rapidly installed a slew of conservative operatives and industry sympathizers in key positions throughout the agency. Because these senior advisers, counselors and other appointees are rarely subject to Senate approval, few people know their names. They nevertheless wield immense power and are responsible for much of the day-to-day work at the interior department.
Hundreds of pages of correspondence and calendars reviewed by the Guardian and Pacific Standard show how Zinke and his top aides have favored corporate and conservative calls to prioritize resource extraction at the expense of conservation, while consistently delivering on industry desires – despite sometimes running afoul of conflict of interest rules.
The interior department responded to only one of multiple inquiries made to it, saying through a spokesperson that “the Department has addressed these questions to you and other reporters on multiple occasions. Our position remains unchanged.”
Zinke is now facing a swirl of misconduct allegations, and Trump has said he would make a decision on his future at the department as soon as this week. But whatever Zinke’s fate, he has stocked the department with a slate of committed conservative appointees who will continue to remake the agency in the image of the Trump administration.
“They are undermining the department’s mission at every turn,” said one current high-level civil servant, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “I have been here a pretty long time and seen different administrations from both sides of the aisle,” the civil servant added, “but this is the worst I have ever seen.”
‘American first energy’
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made no secret of his ambition to exploit the American landscape. “A Trump administration will develop an American first energy plan,” he said in a 2016 speech before the North Dakota Petroleum Council. “American energy dominance will be declared a strategic, economic and foreign policy goal of the United States.”
The US controls enormous publicly owned energy resources, from the underwater oil wells of the Gulf of Mexico to the gas fields of North Dakota and the uranium deposits of Arizona. The interior department is the agency that decides who can drill and mine these riches.
Zinke has styled himself, at least superficially, after Theodore Roosevelt, the progressive-era president who helped create America’s modern conservation system. But Zinke has veered sharply from Roosevelt’s legacy.
Where Roosevelt created the nation’s first national monuments, Zinke drastically reduced the size of Bears Ears national monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monument in Utah last year in what amounted to the largest rollback of protected public lands in American history.
More broadly, over the last fiscal year, the department has sought to lease a stunning 12.8m acres of publicly-owned oil and gas parcels to private companies.
And while Roosevelt railed against powerful special interests, Zinke has a cozy relationship with industry groups. The monument reductions occurred after Zinke was pressured by conservative groups such as the Koch brothers-affiliated Americans for Prosperity and energy companies such as the uranium firm Energy Fuels Inc. In fact, during Zinke’s first 18 months in office he met repeatedly with oil and gas industry organizations that have collectively given him more than $110,000 in political contributions over the course of his career, according to a report from the Western Values Project.
Zinke’s top deputies also have a close relationship with extractive industries. During their first year and a half on the job, just seven of Zinke’s high-level political appointees collectively participated in at least 280 meetings, calls or gatherings with fossil fuel corporations, mining companies or related advocacy groups, according to calendars obtained via public records requests and analyzed by the Guardian and Pacific Standard. Meetings with conservative ideological organizations, agricultural and timber groups, and corporate lobbying and law firms also appeared regularly on the officials’ calendars.
These extractive interests had more than twice as much access as conservation NGOs, which obtained at least 115 meetings and calls with the seven officials within the same timeframe.
At a private energy summit that took place in Washington DC last December, a Zinke appointee named Timothy Williams articulated the department’s pro-industry agenda, according to documentation of his remarks reported here for the first time.
Williams dismissively characterized the approach taken by the administration of Barack Obama: “Anything you want to do on public land, they want to see what the carbon footprint is and what the social cost is.” Under Zinke, “we’re not looking at this”, he said. The new administration was instead focused on “economic impacts”. It was bent on changing “the mindset of the bureaucrats”.
From the very beginning, however, Zinke’s interior appointees appear to have violated Trump’s own ethics directives intended to “drain the swamp”.
According to rules put in place by the Trump administration, officials are supposed to be prohibited for a period of two years from the date of their appointment from having meetings with former employers, with few exceptions, and interior department guidelines recommend that officials take steps to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest when performing their official duties.
Williams, for instance, previously worked for Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a Koch brothers-funded organization committed to combating government regulations of all kinds, including environmental protections. But soon after joining the department as the deputy director of the office of intergovernmental and external affairs, his office contacted AFP to hold a meeting, according to records obtained by the investigative group Documented. “Happy to meet to discuss partnering on shared priorities,” Chrissy Harbin, then the AFP vice-president, replied in an email.
In another case, the political appointee Douglas Domenech met twice in April 2017 with representatives of his former employer, the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF), another Koch-linked conservative foundation. According to his work calendar, the subject of the meeting was a pair of active lawsuits the organization had filed against agencies within the interior department concerning endangered species and property rights – the meetings appear to be a glaring conflict of interest. Little more than six months after its meetings with Domenech, TPPF had what it described as a “major win” when it settled one of those lawsuits.
There are “express prohibitions” on such meetings in the White House’s own ethics pledge, said Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel at the non-partisan Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics. “These high-level officials are supposed to be setting the tone for the entire department and this shows a complete disregard for the ethics rules put in place by the administration.”
Gutting methane regulations
The Guardian and Pacific Standard have uncovered several instances in which interior department leadership has coordinated closely with industry-aligned groups on crucial legal and regulatory decisions, with profound consequences for efforts to combat climate change, wildlife management and other matters.
Zinke’s department plays a major role in the regulation of methane which, for the first 20 years after it is introduced into the atmosphere, is over 80 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. The interior department under Barack Obama moved to clamp down on a principal source of domestic methane pollution – the wasteful leaking, venting and flaring of methane by oil and gas companies. In late 2016, just before Obama left office, the interior department finalized a new federal regulation that required oil and gas drillers operating on public land to take stringent steps to detect and capture methane waste.
Influential oil and gas industry trade groups like the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) were opposed to the measure, and sued in late 2016 to block what it considered a “regulatory onslaught on American producers”. During the first months of the Trump administration, Republicans led an industry-backed effort to repeal the methane rule using the Congressional Review Act, a law that enables Congress and the president to roll back recently issued regulations.
It seems clear that the methane rule rollback was a foregone conclusion from day one
The repeal effort soon ran into trouble, however, when Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, publicly came out against it in the spring of 2017.
Emails reveal how the interior department and oil industry coordinated a response.
“Really?” wrote interior official Micah Chambers, in a frustrated March 2017 note to Ryan Ullman, the IPAA’s director of government relations, upon learning of Graham’s opposition.
“I’m disappointed to put it very politely,” Ullman responded. Ullman asked whether the department would wheel out Zinke to make the case for getting rid of the regulation.
Graham did not change his mind about the methane rule and the Senate ultimately voted against repealing the regulation. Zinke’s department soon took matters into its own hands. The department tried twice in 2017 to block methane regulation by itself, but both times it was stymied by legal challenges from environmentalist groups and state governments.
A political appointee named Katharine MacGregor helped lead the department’s handling of the issue. Her calendar shows several meetings with fossil-fuel industry groups in the summer and fall of 2017, including one about methane just a few hours before an internal interior department meeting on the same subject.
In September this year, MacGregor announced that the department had decided to rewrite the rule entirely, rather than merely block it. The revision effectively rolled it back.
Chase Huntley, the energy and climate program director at The Wilderness Society, said his organization held several meetings with top interior officials, and it became apparent to him that their minds were already made up: the gutting of the methane rule was a preordained outcome.
“It seems clear that the methane rule rollback, while arbitrary, was a foregone conclusion from day one of this administration,” he said. It was rooted “in a philosophical and policy allegiance to the industry’s best interests”.
The mining industry v the sage grouse
Extractive industries also seem to have had a hand in the department’s implementation of the Endangered Species Act, which is regarded as one of the strongest environmental laws in the world but is the bane of some industry groups because it limits development in sensitive habitat.
The interior department energy counselor, Vincent DeVito, for instance, appears to have helped delay Endangered Species Act protections last year for an imperiled freshwater mussel species in Texas at the behest of oil and gas interests. In mid 2017, the government relations director for the Independent Petroleum Association of America wrote in an email to DeVito: “We really hope that you can intervene before this species gets listed next month.”
When the species’ listing was delayed, the Guardian and Pacific Standard have learned from records, the IPAA sent DeVito an email with the words: “THANK YOU!” DeVito has since left the department to work for an oil and gas company.
The department has taken a controversial stance, too, on sage grouse, a chicken-size bird that dwells among the sprawling sagebrush plains of the American west. Even the slightest disturbance can drive the animal from its breeding and nesting grounds, and populations have plummeted in recent decades as oil and gas drilling, mining and other development has fractured its habitat.
In 2015, the Obama administration unveiled protection plans for the species, including a proposal to prohibit new mining on 10m acres of federal land in the hope of avoiding disturbance. But after Trump’s election, the mining industry suddenly found itself with committed sympathizers within the interior development.
A striking email chain reviewed by the Guardian and Pacific Standard reveals that a mining industry advocate helped edit the wording of legislative language intended to block funding for these sage grouse conservation efforts.
In one message from spring 2017, a Republican staffer with the Congressional Western Caucus named Jeff Small described producing the proposed text “after much discussion” with Laura Skaer, the executive director of the influential American Exploration and Mining Association (AEMA). He sent an email to top officials at the interior department to run the legislative language past them too.
Kathleen Benedetto, a senior adviser at the department, replied: “It will need to be modified.” That very day, a modified version of the language was suggested to a house committee by the Republican congressman Paul Gosar. (A spokesperson for Gosar said that “it is common for us to solicit feedback from outside experts and impacted stakeholders”.)
The Republican-led Congress ultimately failed to block funding for the proposed mining prohibition, however, and Zinke’s department once again took matters into its own hands. In June 2017, Zinke established a broad internal review of the Obama-era sage grouse conservation plans, naming Benedetto, previously the co-founder of the Women’s Mining Coalition, as “co-lead” of the effort.
Over the course of the next four months, Benedetto’s calendar shows she had at least 16 meetings or calls with mining groups. In October 2017, the Bureau of Land Management, which Benedetto helps oversee, announced that the 10m acres would no longer be out of bounds for mining.
The AEMA celebrated the victory, saying the interior department “has done the right thing by ending this epic federal land grab”.
The future for Zinke
Since taking office, Zinke and his department have been subject to no fewer than 15 federal investigations. The interior department’s office of inspector general is investigating his involvement in a Montana land deal with the chairman of the oil services company Halliburton. It is also looking into his role in blocking the development of a proposed casino involving two Native American tribes in Connecticut. In late October, the Washington Post reported that the inspector general’s office referred one of its inquiries to the justice department for further investigation, though it did not specify which one.
The secretary’s pro-fossil-fuel agenda, his team’s conflict of interests problems, and his own personal conduct are likely to draw intense scrutiny from Democrats once they take control of the House in January 2019. Already, congressman Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who will probably take the reins as the chair of the House natural resources committee next year, has vowed to call Zinke before the committee in order to interrogate him about his “failures and scandals”. Whether Zinke sticks around at the department is an open question, though many press reports indicate that he is preparing to step down from office.
His political appointees, nevertheless, will probably remain. But they too acknowledge that they have a short timeframe in which to finish their work of fulfilling Trump’s energy dominance agenda.
At the private Washington DC energy summit back in December, Timothy Williams admitted as much to his audience of conservative operatives and fossil-fuel advocates.
“Obviously we are not going as fast as everybody wants, but at some point there will be an administration in here, an administration that is not friendly to your values, to you guys,” he said.
“So bear with us,” he added later. “You guys should know that if you have any questions or any problems you feel free to contact me. That is my job. To work with industry.”
Interior department whistleblower: Ryan Zinke hollowed out the agency
At first I kept an open mind about Trump’s interior secretary. But it soon became clear he put the oil, gas and mining industry above our mission
Back in 2017, the staff at the interior department was not hoping for the best, we were hoping for the competent. A presidential transition can bring dramatic change to the leadership of a federal agency – particularly the agency that manages the conservation and use of one fifth of America’s land area and the seabed of our continental shelf.
Civil servants pledge to continue to serve the American people and the agency mission regardless of whether or not they agree with the political positioning of the president and his cabinet. So we watched the Ryan Zinke confirmation hearings carefully, listening for hints at his management style, his communications style, and his general understanding and respect for public lands and the mission of the agency. These were the qualities that mattered, not his ideology. We were hoping for competence.
in his hearing was a general respect for the notion of public lands, of science, and of the career staff who make the agency tick. There were some red flags for public land advocates and positive signs for industry, but for civil servants, he seemed competent and respectful enough. As so often happens in politics, however, looks can be deceiving.
If Zinke deserves credit for one thing during his tenure as secretary, it’s for his acting skills, and he was in effect handed a brand new “script” when he took office as interior secretary. This script was written by his oil, gas and mining associates and their mouthpiece organizations. It was a script for a provocative new tragedy in three acts, and his job was to do as the script says.
Act one: erase the past
The Trump administration has tried to reverse everything that the Obama administration did, good or bad. Zinke dutifully has done his part by putting a stop to rules meant to protect health and safety, such as a methane venting and flaring rule that would have improved American health and provided energy to thousands of homes. His most visible action has been to implement the largest reduction of protected lands in American history by shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, in the process giving the middle finger to millions of Americans who commented in support of the monuments, as well as the many Native American tribes who had supported Bears Ears.
Act two: exile the experts
His new script has also required Zinke to deny the role of science in policy-making and ensure that experts could not interfere with the oil, gas and mining agenda. He eliminated the term climate change from the agency strategic plan, required that all research grants be reviewed by an old football buddy, and canceled a National Academy study into the health impacts of coal mining just as he was canceling a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands. He also took the unprecedented step of reassigning dozens of career senior executives, including me, as a means to “trim the workforce”, as he stated in a congressional budget hearing. He dutifully and actively worked to hollow out the agency to make it easier for his industry sponsors to operate on public lands.
Act three: choose your rules
In many tragedies, the flaws of the lead character bring his or her demise, and Zinke’s script appears like it will be no different. The Trump administration has a history of hiring less-than-upright characters and Zinke has not disappointed. The subject of over a dozen inspector general investigations, he apparently did not pay attention during the ethics briefing that every new federal employee must attend. Evidence suggests that he used his public office, and taxpayer dollars, for private gain on multiple occasions, and these scandals seem to have finally caught up to him.
If he leaves – which, reports suggest, could be very soon – Zinke will be replaced by another actor but the script won’t change. Waiting in the wings to take over is the deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, a former oil, gas and mining lobbyist who worked at interior during the George W Bush administration and knows his way around the agency. Bernhardt embodies the revolving door between industry and interior, and has already raised eyebrows over likely conflicts of interest. He may prove to be more effective at doing the job that Zinke started, but will have to face a greater degree of oversight due to recent election results.
The real loser in this brief performance has been the American taxpayer. America’s national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands are national treasures and must be managed with care to serve our national interest. This means using science to guide decision-making rather than ignoring climate change and marginalizing scientists. It means striking a balance between exploitation and conservation rather than providing massive handouts to oil, gas and mining interests. This means supporting and nurturing a federal workforce to effectively execute the laws, regulations, and policies required by Congress rather than hollowing out the operations of the agency you’re tasked with managing.
Ryan Zinke has never looked up from his script long enough.
Americans, and the civil servants who work at interior, deserve a secretary who respects ethics, transparency, science and the mission of the agency rather than an actor reading from an industry-prepared script. When the time comes, the Senate must hold Ryan Zinke’s successor to a higher standard.
- Joel Clement is a senior fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and former director of the interior department’s policy office.
Lobbyist who once sued Interior named to be department's No. 2 official
By Stuart Leavenworth
His name is David Longly Bernhardt, and he’s worked as the top lobbyist for California’s Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural entity of its kind in the nation. He’s sued the Interior Department and helped write legislation on behalf of his client. Largely because of his services, Westlands has paid Bernhardt and the law firm where he works $1.27 million since 2011.
On Friday, the Trump administration announced it was nominating Bernhardt to serve as deputy to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. If confirmed by the Senate, Bernhardt will be in a position to influence decisions that could benefit his former client.
Under a executive order signed by President Donald Trump, appointees such as Bernhardt are required to recuse themselves from matters involving former clients, although in the past, waivers have been granted for people in his situation. Zinke on Friday praised the nomination, saying in a statement that Bernhardt’s extensive experience “is exactly what is needed to help streamline government and make the Interior and our public lands work for the American economy.”
Bernhardt’s nomination, however, is already drawing fire from critics, who note that Trump, as a candidate, promised to “drain the swamp” of lobbyists’ influence over the White House and Congress. As president, Trump has placed lobbyists in key positions on his transition team and in his administration, and has adopted ethics rules looser than those of the Obama administration for appointees.
“Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest,” said U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who’s a fierce critic of Westlands. “He should absolutely have to recuse himself from anything having to do with Westlands Water District. That is the most obvious of ethical fault lines here.”
Interior officials said Friday that Bernhardt would have to comply with all federal ethics statutes as well as the administration’s earlier ethics pledge. An Interior spokeswoman said he had undergone “an extensive preclearance examination with the department’s senior ethics officials and the Office of Government Ethics.”
Over the last five years, Bernhardt has sued the Interior Department and lobbied the Justice Department and Congress to finalize a settlement that could be worth more than $375 million to Westlands. The settlement, approved by the Obama administration, involves a decades-old dispute over the toxic irrigation drainage that flows from Westlands’ 600,000 acres. Federal courts have ruled that the federal government is responsible for constructing drainage, but for a variety of reasons – costs and potential environmental damage – the Interior Department has not done so.
Under legislation that Westlands is seeking, the federal government would relieve the water district of its roughly $375 million debt to the federal government and provide it with new water contracts. In exchange, Westlands would retire one-sixth of its acreage and free the federal government of its obligation to build a drainage system that could cost an estimated $3.5 billion.
Westlands officials say the settlement is fair to both farmers and taxpayers. Environmentalists and some in Congress have labeled it a “giveaway.” They complain that the deal includes no clear provisions on how Westlands would manage its tainted wastewater and no clear assurances the federal government will intervene if problems occur.
Bernhardt stepped down as Westlands’ lobbyist in November, when he joined the Trump transition. Yet before that, he was involved with the drainage settlement and other legislation benefiting his former client. Documents obtained by environmental advocate Patricia Schifferle show he helped write amendments to a $558 million water bill, approved by Congress in December, that steers more water to Westlands and other water districts and eases construction of new dams.
Schifferle and others say that, as the number two official in Interior, Bernhardt could give Westlands preferential treatment in how Interior implements the 2016 water legislation and a future settlement on drainage. He will also be in a position to influence permitting for the $17.1 billion twin tunnels project in California, which could ease deliveries of water to the Westlands and Southern California water districts.
When President Barack Obama was in office, lobbyists were barred from taking jobs at federal agencies they had previously lobbied. When Trump took office, his administration removed such restrictions, with the proviso that former lobbyists had to sign an recusal oath. That oath says they cannot “participate in any particular matter of which I lobbied . . . or participate in the specific issue area in which that particular matter falls.”
Bernhardt’s appointment echoes a similar one from the administration of George W. Bush. His Interior Department hired Jason Peltier, director of the Central Valley Project Users Association, to serve as deputy assistant secretary for water and science. Upon joining Interior in 2001, Peltier recused himself from some decisions involving the water districts he previously represented, including Westlands. Then his superiors granted him an exemption, he said, because of his expertise in California water issues. “I was given dispensation early on because of my knowledge of these issues,” Peltier told The New York Times in 2006.
Made up of roughly 700 farms west of Fresno, Westlands grows about $1 billion in crops yearly, and it includes some of the most lucrative farming operations in the United States.
While Westlands does well during big water years, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has reduced its water deliveries during drier years, in favor of environmental requirements and water districts with senior water rights. Westlands has fought those reductions for decades, and last year’s water legislation , crafted at the end by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., was a partial victory.
Over the last five years, Westlands has spent more than $3 million lobbying the federal government, with more than a third of that going to Bernhardt’s employer, the Denver law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. After Obama came to office, the water district also hired numerous Bush-era Interior officials, including Peltier, Susan Ramos, Craig Manson and Julie McDonald.
Prior to joining the Brownstein firm, Bernhardt worked at Interior, rising to the department’s number three job, as solicitor, from 2006 to 2008.
Colleagues who worked with Bernhardt – even those critical of the Trump administration – praise Bernhardt’s knowledge of resource law and his skills as a manager. One of those is Eric Nagle, who in February sent out an email blast urging his fellow Interior lawyers to “stand your ground” and resist indefensible edicts from the new administration.
“I think he (Bernhardt) would be a good pick,” said Nagle, who retired last month from the Interior Department’s Pacific Northwest region. “He’s a principled guy and good manager. He understands the need to follow the law.”
Others, however, say Bernhardt has so many conflicts that many of his decisions will be second-guessed. Not only has he represented agricultural interests and industries that hope to influence Interior decisions, his law firm – Brownstein – represents hundreds of such clients. As McClatchy reported in February, Brownstein also has a financial stake in a California water venture, Cadiz, that was recently successful in overturning a unfavorable permit ruling from the Bureau of Land Management, an Interior agency.
Matt Lee-Ashley, an Interior deputy chief of staff during the Obama administration, said Bernhardt’s appointment was the inevitable result of Trump’s looser restrictions on lobbyist hiring. If Bernhardt is confirmed by the Senate, “It will be difficult for ethnics officials to unpack what kind of conflicts there are, and what kind of recusals are going to be in place,” said Ashley, who works at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Bernhardt, who couldn’t be reached for comment, is hardly the only lobbyist hired by the Trump administration to serve in a department he previously lobbied.
Geoff Burr, formerly a chief lobbyist for a construction industry trade group, now has a job at the Department of Labor, where he reportedly is in line to be chief of staff. As a lobbyist, Burr opposed wage standards for federal construction contracts and standards to limit workers’ exposure to silica dust, according to a report in ProPublica.
Huffman, who sits on the House Natural Resources Committee, said he didn’t expect that Bernhardt would completely recuse himself from matters involving Westlands and other former clients.
“This is the poster child of the swamp that people thought would be drained by this president,” said Huffman. “Instead it is being restocked by more swamp people.”