How Interior’s top lawyer is paving the way to drain California’s desert and deliver millions to Secretary Bernhardt’s former law firm
Former Koch advisor’s memo is helping greenlight a controversial project
The United States Senate will soon vote on whether to confirm Daniel Jorjani as Interior Department Solicitor. The former Koch brothers advisor has held the position of top Interior lawyer in an acting capacity since 2017, writing memos to let oil companies off the hook for killing migratory birds and overseeing a politically-driven effort to stifle Freedom of Information Act requests. One of Jorjani’s actions has flown under the radar — clearing a path for a California corporation to drain the desert near Joshua Tree National Park.
For decades, Cadiz, Inc. has sought to build a pipeline that would drain an aquifer underneath Mojave Trails National Monument and ship 16 billions of gallons of water annually to coastal cities like Los Angeles. Researchers have found that such a project would threaten the region’s iconic oases that wildlife, like desert bighorn sheep, depend on. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have found that the aquifer would not come close to recharging after such massive withdrawals.
In its quest to gain the necessary approvals for the project, Cadiz has funneled millions to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s former law firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS). Just take a look at the cozy relationship:
- Cadiz Inc. President and CEO Scott Slater is a partner at BHFS, and draws an annual salary of $300,000, with additional $300,000 cash bonuses, from the company on top of his law firm compensation.
- Interior Secretary David Bernhardt listed Cadiz, Inc. on his ethics recusal forms, pledging to abstain from “particular matters” involving Cadiz until August 3, 2019.
- Since 2010, Cadiz has reported more than $3.7 million in payments to BHFS for lobbying activities.
- In 2013, Cadiz entered into an agreement with BHFS, awarding the law firm with up to 400,000 shares of the companies stock, with incentives for the project being completed. At the current stock price, those shares would be worth more than $4.1 million, a value that would surely increase if the project is approved.
- The same agreement also established base cash payments of $25,000 per month to BHFS.
With Bernhardt in office, Cadiz has gotten exactly what it wished for from the Interior Department. Exactly one month after Bernhardt was sworn in as Deputy Secretary, Acting Solicitor Jorjani issued an official opinion reversing the agency’s position on a key issue impacting Cadiz. The reversal, which at first appears unrelated, but is highly relevant to the company’s efforts, rules that railroads can offer leases to third parties for non-railroad activities within their rights of way without gaining approval from the Bureau of Land Management.
The company celebrated Jorjani’s action, noting that it had already leased part of the Arizona & California Railroad Company’s right of way for its water pipeline. One month later, the Bureau of Land Management wrote Cadiz, citing Jorjani’s opinion, to say that the project would no longer need approval from the agency.
Emails recently released under the Freedom of Information Act show that Secretary Bernhardt is particularly sensitive about his work for Cadiz. After an article in Politico stated that he lobbied for the company, Bernhardt fired off an email to the agency’s press secretary, stating, “This article is false. I was never a lobbyist for Cadiz. I want a correction.” After being reminded that he listed Cadiz as a former client on his ethics forms, Bernhardt admitted, “I did a modest amount of legal services for them but it was never registered lobbying.” With millions of dollars in payments to his firm, Bernhardt’s claim of “modest” legal work is rich.
While the Interior Department has delivered policy favors clearing the way for Cadiz, the project still faces immense local opposition. This week the California State Senate passed a bill that would require additional environmental reviews for groundwater transfers from desert regions, a major impediment for Cadiz. The legislation must now pass the State Assembly before heading to Governor Gavin Newsom, who has supported similar efforts in the past. Unfortunately for the California desert and its wildlife, with Secretary Bernhardt and Solicitor Jorjani at the helm, the Interior Department will continue to do everything it can to push the project forward.