David Bernhardt’s conflict-of-interest list keeps getting longer
From Jack Abramoff to a state-owned oil company, Trump’s nominee for Deputy Interior Secretary has a lot of explaining to do
When the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee sits down with Deputy Interior Secretary nominee David Bernhardt on Thursday, Bernhardt will have to answer for even more questionable connections than we knew about last month.
At the top of the list: crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and Norway’s state-owned oil company, Statoil.
The Abramoff link
Bernhardt’s ties to Abramoff date back to at least 2001, when he was the Director of Congressional Affairs at the Department of the Interior. That September, Abramoff arranged a dinner with top Interior staff, including Bernhardt, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, who later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Abramoff case.
The dinner was with the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA), a “greenscam” group run by Italia Federici, the go-between who connected Abramoff with Griles and other Interior officials. She also pleaded guilty in the Abramoff scandal. Abramoff routed $500,000 through CREA in an effort to influence senior officials at the Interior Department.
At the time, Abramoff told his colleagues that representatives from three tribal nations would be in attendance. Abramoff informed them that he would be sitting with Coushatta Chief Lovelin Poncho, Secretary Norton, David Bernhardt, and CREA President Federici, and asked them to “confirm that you can be at this very important dinner.”
In an email, Federici said that the dinner would “introduce Interior folks to our favorite friends and supporters. The main topic of discussion will be ways CREA, working with our friends, can help Interior reach the American public with a positive and unfiltered conservative message.”
One of Abramoff’s emails regarding the dinner went to a representative of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, which hired Abramoff as a lobbyist from 2002–2004. The Saginaw Chippewa hired Abramoff because they were worried about competition from two other tribes in Michigan that were trying to build casinos that would compete with their own Soaring Eagle Casino, the largest in the state.
In 2004, the Interior Department’s National Indian Gaming Commission warned that there were “serious questions” about whether the Sault Ste. Marie tribe, one of the Saginaw Chippewa’s competitors, could conduct gaming in St. Ignace, Michigan, concluding that the Sault Ste. Marie casino was not located on a reservation.
Two years later, as the Abramoff scandal enveloped Washington, Bernhardt, who by then had been promoted to Deputy Solicitor, wrote a letter to Congressman Bart Stupak defending Interior’s decision that benefited the Saginaw Chippewa — Abramoff’s former client. In it, Bernhardt acknowledged that Interior’s ruling would have a “significant economic impact” on the Sault Ste. Marie.
Despite the Interior Department’s efforts to derail the Sault Ste. Marie casino, the tribe won an injunction allowing them to open.
Bernhardt’s connections to Abramoff during his time at the Interior Department raise serious questions about his fitness to serve as Deputy Secretary, which is the most powerful position at Interior when it comes to day-to-day operations and decision making.
On Thursday, senators will have the opportunity to ask Bernhardt to detail his connections to Abramoff, who is widely considered to be one of the most corrupt players to ever set foot in Washington.
David Bernhardt’s financial disclosure form revealed more legal clients while he was the chair of the natural resources group at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a high-powered lobbying and law firm. Among those clients is Statoil, Norway’s state-owned oil company.
Statoil operates globally, with subsidiaries and operations in countries that include Iran, China, Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. Statoil also has a development deal with Rosneft, a Russian state-owned oil company.
It’s not clear what work Bernhardt did on Statoil’s behalf. If he was representing the state interests of Norway as part of his legal work, even in a “quasi-political capacity,” then he would have been required to register as a foreign agent under FARA, the Foreign Agents Registration Act. It appears Bernhardt never registered as a foreign agent.
During his confirmation hearing, senators will surely question Bernhardt about his representation of Statoil, and whether it should have triggered registration under FARA.
A rogues’ gallery of clients
Bernhardt’s client list includes more than a dozen other companies that could have regular business before the Interior Department. Among them are:
Oil and gas
- Access Industries
- Samson Resources
- Cobalt Energy
- Ur Energy
- Targa Resources
- Noble Energy
- Sempra Energy
- Taylor Energy
- NRG Energy
- Strata Production
- Freeport LNG
Copper and potash mining
- Rosemont Copper
- American West Potash
- Prospect Global Resources
- Cadiz, Inc.
- Westlands Water District
- Garrison Diversion Irrigation District
- Independent Petroleum Association
- National Oceans Industry Association
- American Wind Energy Association
Those are just companies and industries that Bernhardt personally represented as a lawyer or lobbyist. His lobbying firm represented many more, including Citgo, Lario Oil & Gas, and WPX Energy.
Many of Bernhardt’s clients have been implicated in pollution and corruption scandals over the years. These are just a small sampling of the types of incidents that David Bernhardt would find crossing his desk if he returns to Interior:
- Noble Energy paid $73 million to settle a federal pollution claim in 2015 for emitting thousands of tons of volatile organic chemicals each year in Colorado’s Julesburg Basin.
- In 2016, NRG Energy paid $12 million to settle a lawsuit for dumping illegal amounts of nitrogen into the Potomac and Patuxent Rivers.
- Sempra Energy’s Aliso Canyon, California facility leaked so much methane in 2015 that 8,000 residents were forced to evacuate their homes.
- Cobalt Energy was investigated for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, until the Justice Department abruptly ended the investigation two weeks after President Trump took office.
- Halliburton, of course, paid a $1.1 billion settlement for its role in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
These companies, along with the State of Alaska (another legal client of Bernhardt’s) now paint a picture of conflicts of interest that stretch from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Mojave Desert to the Gulf of Mexico.
Bernhardt, in his ethics disclosure letter, promises to avoid any matters involving his firm’s clients — but for just one year, and even then he leaves himself room to obtain a waiver that would let him make decisions that help his former colleagues and clients.
Those promises are wholly inadequate.
For starters, a one-year waiver is a laughably short time out. Any major decisions that make it to the Deputy Secretary’s office have generally been years in the making. For example, the Cadiz water pipeline project, which could be worth more than $100 million to Bernhardt’s lobbying firm, has been in the works for more than two decades.
Sitting on the sidelines for a year would simply give Bernhardt a few months before he has the green light pay his clients back — with interest. And if he did decide to involve himself in decisions before the year is up, the public would likely never know. The Washington Post reports that the Trump Administration no longer publishes ethics waivers granted to appointees and nominees like Bernhardt.
In order to truly free himself of conflicts of interest at Interior, David Bernhardt would need to recuse himself from any decisions involving his clients or their competitors for as long as he’s Deputy Secretary. Given the breadth of industries and issues Bernhardt spent the last eight years working on, he would quickly find himself with nothing to do on the job.