Watchdog Calls for Investigation into Acting Interior Secretary’s Actions to Benefit Former Lobbying Client

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 19, 2019

Contact: Bryan Dewan, bdewan@campaignforaccountability.org, 202.780.5750

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (“CfA”), a nonprofit watchdog group focused on public accountability, called on ethics officials at the Interior Department and the Office of Government Ethics to investigate David Bernhardt, the Acting Secretary of the Department of the Interior, and his relationship with his former lobbying client, Westlands Water District, an agricultural conglomerate in California. While at Interior, Mr. Bernhardt initiated a review of Endangered Species Act protections for two endangered species of fish in California, an issue he advocated for while working as a lobbyist for Westlands.

Read the complaint here.

CfA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens said, “Acting Secretary Bernhardt appears to have used his position to help his former client roll back environmental regulations. By working on this particular matter as a public official within two years of lobbying on the issue, Mr. Bernhardt may have violated the ethics pledge he signed after taking office. Ethics officials should immediately open an investigation into Mr. Bernhardt’s actions.”

Acting Secretary Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for Westlands between March 30, 2011 and November 18, 2016, while employed at the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. During this time, Mr. Bernhardt lobbied to eliminate environmental protections for two species of fish that live in the San Francisco Bay Delta region: the delta smelt and the winter-run Chinook salmon.

California water districts must reduce the allocation of water to farmers so there is enough water to protect the habitats for these fish. For decades, Westlands has lobbied federal authorities to roll back these protections, with The New York Times describing this policy change as Westlands’ “chief goal.”

In November 2017, in his role as then-Deputy Secretary of Interior, Mr. Bernhardt reportedly directed David Murillo, the Acting Commissioner for the Bureau of Reclamation, to roll back the environmental protections for these two species of fish. Mr. Murillo then initiated the legal process to roll back these protections in December 2017.

Acting Secretary Bernhardt’s actions may have violated Executive Order 13770: Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Employees, issued by President Trump on January 28, 2017.  The so-called ethics pledge requires presidential appointees to forgo working on an issue for a period of two years if they lobbied about that issue during the two years before joining the administration.

Mr. Stevens continued, “Acting Secretary Bernhardt exemplifies the very definition of a revolving door official. Public officials should carry out the public’s interests, not the interests of their former lobbying clients. If Mr. Bernhardt violated ethics rules to score points for Westlands, he needs to be held accountable.”

Campaign for Accountability is nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.