Watchdogs Submit New Evidence Revealing that Interior Secretary Violated Ethics Rules to Benefit Former Client

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 12, 2019

Contact: Bryan Dewan,, 202.780.5750

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a nonprofit watchdog group focused on public accountability, and Western Values Project (WVP), a Montana-based nonprofit conservation group, submitted additional evidence to ethics officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior (Interior) and the Office of Government Ethics showing U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt continued to work with his former lobbying client, Westlands Water District (Westlands), through at least July 2017, which is longer than was previously known.

Click here to download a PDF of the letter.

CfA Executive Director Daniel E. Stevens said, “These newly obtained documents show that Sec. Bernhardt was talking to his former lobbying client longer than previously known and right up until he was appointed deputy secretary of the Interior Department. Soon after working for Westlands and joining the Interior Department, Sec. Bernhardt took steps to benefit Westlands, in apparent violation of ethics rules. Ethics officials should review this new information and determine whether Sec. Bernhardt broke the law.”

Sec. Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for Westlands for five years before joining the Trump administration as the deputy secretary of the Interior on July 24, 2017. Notably, while working for Westlands, Mr. Bernhardt lobbied the federal government to reduce protections for two endangered species of fish in California. As deputy secretary, Mr. Bernhardt directed an Interior official to initiate the process to eliminate environmental protections for the fish, which would have provided additional water for Westlands. Sec. Bernhardt was later promoted to Secretary of the Interior.

On February 19, 2019, CfA called on ethics officials to investigate whether Sec. Bernhardt violated any ethics rules by taking official action to benefit Westlands within two years of working for them.  After the 2016 election, Mr. Bernhardt continued to lobby for Westlands despite delisting as a lobbyist and working for the Trump transition team.

Click here to read CfA’s February 19, 2019 request for investigation.

New emails obtained by WVP indicate Mr. Bernhardt continued to work with Westlands for far longer than was previously known, at least until July 2017. For instance, Mr. Bernhardt appears to have held regular conference calls with Westlands officials until May 2017. Additionally, on June 27, 2017, Mr. Bernhardt met with Tom Birmingham, the General Manager for Westlands, at a Washington D.C. restaurant.

In addition to these apparent ongoing meetings about Westlands matters, in the week before he was confirmed as deputy secretary, Mr. Bernhardt sent three emails regarding billing invoices to Westlands. In the emails, Mr. Bernhardt retroactively tried to justify his potentially illegal conduct. Notably, Mr. Bernhardt submitted the invoices on the same day that E&E News published an article about his potentially illegal lobbying conduct.

Mr. Stevens continued, “Sec. Bernhardt appears to have kept in close contact with his former client while simultaneously angling for a top job at the Interior Department. Once he was appointed to a powerful position, Sec. Bernhardt appears to have used the powers of his office to benefit his former client. Sec. Bernhardt needs to be held accountable.”

Campaign for Accountability is a nonpartisan, 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.