Complaint: Acting Secretary Bernhardt Continued to Effectively Lobby for Client While Leading Government Agency

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Bernhardt’s behavior fits pattern of disregard for ethical norms across government agency tasked with managing the country’s natural resources

WASHINGTON – Today, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Inspector General alleging that Acting Secretary David Bernhardt ran afoul of his ethical obligations by participating in the same efforts to weaken environmental protections that he lobbied for prior to joining government.

Before joining Interior, Bernhardt lobbied on specific provisions of a law that aimed to minimize endangered species protections and maximize water supplies for his client. Bernhardt then joined Interior and used his official authority to institutionalize the same provisions that he had lobbied on, in violation of his ethics pledge and his ethical obligations.

“For years, Bernhardt lobbied to undermine protections for endangered species on behalf of his lobbying clients, and he continued working on the same exact issues after entering government,” said Paul Smith, vice president of CLC. “Bernhardt should be subject to the same high ethical standards as any other Interior employee, and the Inspector General should investigate this fully.”

“It is hard to tell where Bernhardt’s private sector lobbying activities end and where his public service begins,” said Brendan Fischer, director, federal reform at CLC. “These violations have major consequences: this isn’t about technical violations of ethics rules, and it isn’t about a three-inch fish. This is about whether increasingly scarce natural resources remain protected for the public, or whether the wealthy and well-connected get privileged access. Public officials are supposed to work on behalf of the public, not the powerful interests that used to fund their paycheck.”

In the years before entering government, Bernhardt lobbied on specific provisions of the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (“WIIN”) Act, which directed Interior to maximize water resources for his lobbying client – Westlands Water District – by placing constraints on the application of certain Endangered Species Act protections. Shortly after joining Interior, Bernhardt violated his ethics pledge by participating in the same particular matters that he had lobbied on, by directing agency actions that would effectively codify those same provisions.

Bernhardt’s advocacy on behalf of Westlands, and against endangered species protections for specific fish, was not limited to lobbying. He was on the board of a nonprofit group closely tied to Westlands that worked on matters that paralleled Bernhardt’s lobbying efforts. When Westlands sued to challenge the endangered species protections at issue in his lobbying efforts, he personally argued an appeal before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Even after deregistering as a lobbyist, and while serving on Trump’s Interior transition team, he edited a draft executive order on behalf of Westlands that would incorporate the same provisions of the WIIN Act that he previously lobbied on. These facts further mandated recusal, since a reasonable person would question whether Bernhardt was acting on behalf of the public or on behalf of his former lobbying client when he worked on the same matters at Interior.

Bernhardt’s disregard for ethical norms reflects a larger pattern at Interior. On Feb. 20, 2019, CLC filed a complaint about six political employees who also appear to have also violated their ethics pledges.

*Delaney Marsco and Urja Mittal also worked on this complaint for CLC.