Trump’s Interior nominee dogged by questions over lobbying

By: Matt Smith and Lance Williams, The Center for Investigative Reporting, July 20, 2017

Image Credit: Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, reposted by The Center for Investigative Reporting.

A top U.S. Interior Department nominee violated ethics laws by continuing to lobby on behalf of a major client, according to a complaint filed with prosecutors today by Campaign for Accountability, a Washington, D.C. good government nonprofit.

The complaint came as Senate Democrats opposed lobbyist David Bernhardt’s appointment to fill the No. 2 spot at Interior, arguing at a hearing today that his conflicts of interest are too significant.

Behind Senate objections, and the complaint, is Bernhardt’s claim that he cleared the decks for his new job back in November when he shed his biggest lobbying client, the Westlands Water District in California’s Central Valley.

But during the next five months Bernhardt continued plotting strategy, consulting with members of Congress, and helping draft legislation favored by the same client he had supposedly dumped, according to water district emails and other documents made public this week.

In a disclosure form filed with Congress on June 20, Bernhardt’s employer, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, stated that his “lobbying termination” was effective Nov. 18.

Citing the emails, the complaint claims that Bernhardt had violated the law by continuing to act as a lobbyist for Westlands. He helped draft a proposed executive order addressing water issues in California and worked on a bill that would give big growers a larger allocation of federal irrigation water, the complaint said. That bill, the Gaining Responsibility on Water Act of 2017, passed the House of Representatives on July 12.

The complaint said: “It has been widely reported that Trump administration nominees and employees frequently have failed to adhere to ethics rules. Based on the available evidence, it appears that Mr. Bernhardt may have followed this now well-worn path by failing to maintain his lobbying registration.”

Bernhardt didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Westlands has claimed that Bernhardt, who is an attorney, merely gave legal advice. Daniel Stevens, director of the nonprofit that filed the complaint, accused Bernhardt of doing a lot more for Westlands than lawyering.

For example, on Dec. 9, an aide to Rep. Kevin McCarthy emailed Bernhardt regarding a water bill favored by big growers that had just passed the House. “I just wanted to thank you for all your help on this,” wrote the aide to the California Republican. “We will see what happens in the Senate.”

Said Stevens: “‘Thanks for your help on this legislation’ is much more than providing legal advice.”

Westlands’ claim “doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.

Read the rest of the article here.