Environment & Science

Critics say Interior nominee has big conflicts of interest in California

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The man tapped to be the second in command at the U.S. Department of Interior is a former government lawyer and an ex-lobbyist who has worked on behalf of water and agricultural interests in California.

Critics say David Bernhardt, who served as the Solicitor for the Department of Interior during the Bush Administration before becoming a lobbyist, represents the revolving door in Washington that President Trump vowed to do away with. If confirmed, he may have the opportunity to work on projects that could benefit his former clients. The Senate will hold Bernhardt’s confirmation hearing on Thursday.

According to federal financial and lobbying disclosures, Bernhardt has worked for a variety of energy, mining and water interests in recent years: a copper mine in Arizona, a ski resort in Colorado, and water agencies in California. Working on behalf of Westlands Water District, a powerful water agency in the Central Valley, he sued Interior and helped to negotiate a favorable settlement regarding contaminated irrigation water that drains the agency’s customers’ land. 

Bernhardt also lists the LA-based private water company Cadiz Inc, which is trying to build a controversial groundwater pumping project in the Mojave Desert, as a source of income. The project had stalled under the Obama Administration, but was recently revived by a Bureau of Land Management decision that may make it easier for the company to build a pipeline along a railroad right of way. 

Danielle Segura, executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust, which opposes the project on the grounds that it may harm springs in the neighboring Mojave Trails National Monument, wonders if Bernhardt is aiding that project along and would continue to do so if confirmed. 

“That seems like a conflict of interest to me,” she said. “Here you have a high level business person who has been tapped by the administration to lead public lands efforts who was a proponent of this project.”

Under an executive order signed by President Trump, federal appointees are not allowed to participate in any decisions involving their former employers or clients -- unless they obtain permission to do so.

The Center for Western Priorities’ Aaron Weiss says if Bernhardt has so many potential conflicts and that if he recuses himself from everything he has potential conflicts with, “he’ll have nothing to work on at Interior.”

But many hunting and fishing-oriented conservation groups disagree with the claim Bernhardt is compromised. Margaret Everson, chief policy officer for Ducks Unlimited, worked with Bernhardt at the Interior Department during the Bush Administration, when she was the counsel to the director of US Fish and Wildlife Services.

She said Bernhardt's experience working with industry allows him to see all sides of an issue.

“He has a tremendous amount of integrity, he knows the rule of law, and he has an incredible amount of institutional knowledge,” she said.

Ducks Unlimited was one of 27 conservation groups that sent a letter to the heads of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources expressing their support for Bernhardt.

If confirmed, Bernhardt would help Secretary Ryan Zinke oversee federal land in California, which makes up 40 percent of the state.