TIMELINE: Everything we know so far about the investigations into David Bernhardt
The new Interior Secretary picks up where Ryan Zinke left off
Just one week into his tenure as Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt is already facing at least two formal investigations into his conduct. Interior’s Inspector General is examining “numerous” complaints into whether Bernardt violated ethics rules by helping his former clients, and the National Archives and Records Administration is looking into whether Bernhardt ordered the destruction of calendar records that could have shown him meeting with those clients.
Some of the ethics complaints are focused on Westlands Water District, a former client of Bernhardt’s that has long sought to weaken endangered species protections in California. Weaker protections would free up water for Westlands’ agricultural customers.
The news that led to the dual investigations into Bernhardt came in a deluge in the weeks leading up to his Senate confirmation — but the events in question took place slowly over a two-year period that starts before President Trump took office.
The Center for Western Priorities created this timeline to clarify what took place, and to document the Interior Department’s shifting and sometimes contradictory explanations:
November 2016: Bernhardt formally ends work as a federal lobbyist.
January/February 2017: Bernhardt continues to travel and lobby on behalf of Westlands Water District.
March 2017: Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where Bernhardt is still the head of the natural resources division, bills Westlands Water District for “Federal Lobbying.”
April 19, 2017: Bernhardt continues to work for Westlands Water District, agreeing to attend a “team breakfast” on April 25, 2017.
April 28, 2017: Trump formally nominates Bernhardt to serve as Deputy Interior Secretary.
July 24, 2017: Senate confirms Bernhardt as Deputy Interior Secretary.
July 26, 2017: Bernhardt completes Federal Records Act training. The training includes specific guidance for draft electronic documents which state that “drafts containing unique substantive information must be preserved and filed.”
May 2018: Bernhardt’s public calendar contains more than 30 “external” meetings and calls with no details. This is a significant change from previous public calendars. That suggests the Google document containing Bernhardt’s daily cards may have been created around this time.
August/September 2018: Bernhardt’s public calendar contains 131 “internal” and 41 “external” meetings with no details.
November 2018: A researcher requests clarification from the Interior Freedom of Information Act office on Bernhardt’s calendars, noting that it would be impossible for a high-ranking official to function with calendars that only list “internal” and “external” meetings.
December 15, 2018: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announces his resignation amid multiple investigations.
January 2, 2019: David Bernhardt becomes Acting Interior Secretary.
January 2019: The DOI FOIA office informs a researcher that in order to respond to a request for Bernhardt’s daily agendas, records officers would have to go through the version history of a Google document in order to re-create the schedules, which had been overwritten on a daily basis for months.
February 4, 2019: President Trump tweets that he will nominate Bernhardt as Interior Secretary.
February 7, 2019: House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman TJ Cox send a letter to Bernhardt requesting “all calendars and schedules maintained by or on behalf of Bernhardt,” citing hundreds of hours of vague entries in Bernhardt’s public calendars.
February 12, 2019: The New York Times reports Bernhardt intervened to reduce protections for the endangered Delta Smelt, a policy that benefited Westlands Water District.
February 28, 2019: Bernhardt responds to the document request letter from Grijalva and Cox, claiming he has “not personally maintained a calendar for years” and falsely stating “the details of the schedule I receive each day are publicly provided.”
March 11, 2019: President Trump formally nominates Bernhardt as Interior Secretary.
March 13, 2019: During a House Oversight Committee hearing, Chairman Elijah Cummings asks Rachel Spector, the Interior Department’s Acting Deputy Chief FOIA officer, whether Bernhardt’s calendars are erased at the end of each day. Spector replies, “I don’t know,” then adds, “I have some familiarity with the issue that you are raising, and understand that the Solicitor’s office in the Department is working with the records officer in the Department to determine what’s occurred there and whether it’s consistent.”
March 19, 2019: Chairman Cummings cites Spector’s testimony in a letter to the National Archives and Records Administration requesting an investigation into whether all of Bernhardt’s meetings “are being captured and preserved in accordance with DOI’s record schedules.”
March 27, 2019: The Washington Post reports Bernhardt’s staff keep a daily calendar, called a “daily card,” in a Google document that is overwritten the following day.
March 28, 2019: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing to consider Bernhardt’s nomination as Interior Secretary.
March 28, 2019: Chairmen Grijalva and Cummings send a letter to Bernhardt requesting transcribed interviews with Bernhardt’s chief of staff Todd Willens and three other Interior employees to “address the process through which DOI employees maintain your schedule and the process by which records of your activities are preserved and produced in response to FOIA requests.”
April 1, 2019: The National Archives and Records Administration informs Chairman Cummings it has launched an inquiry into “alleged unauthorized disposition” of Bernhardt’s calendars.
April 2, 2019: The Interior Department releases public versions of some of Bernhardt’s “daily cards,” making hundreds of meetings known for the first time.
April 3, 2019: Eight senators, led by Sen. Maizie Hirono, reiterate in a letter to Acting Interior Inspector General Mary Kendall the need for an investigation into scientific interference by Bernhardt or other Interior political appointees.
April 4, 2019: The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approves Bernhardt’s nomination.
April 8, 2019: Senator Ron Wyden requests a criminal investigation into whether Bernhardt violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act by continuing to lobby on behalf of Westlands Water District after deregistering as a lobbyist in November 2016.
April 8, 2019: CQ Roll Call reports that Bernhardt’s “daily cards” contain at least 260 discrepancies from the public calendars. Interior spokesperson Faith Vander Voort misleadingly states Bernhardt “did not keep his personal schedule within a Google document.”
April 11, 2019: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair, falsely states on the Senate floor that “there are no open investigations into Mr. Bernhardt.”
April 11, 2019: The full Senate confirms Bernhardt as Interior Secretary.
April 13, 2019: Politico confirms the National Archives investigation, opened 12 days prior.
April 15, 2019: The Interior Department Inspector General’s office opens an investigation into “a wide assortment of complaints alleging various conflicts of interest and other violations” by Bernhardt.
April 16, 2019: Interior spokesperson Faith Vander Voort confirms to CQ Roll Call that Bernhardt’s private Google document calendar is overwritten and that Interior staff follow an internal protocol to keep industry meetings off the Secretary’s public calendar. Vander Voort defends her previous denial by insisting that the Google document was a “reflection” of Bernhardt’s calendar, therefore he didn’t “keep” his schedule there. She also describes Bernhardt’s calendar as a “puzzle” which can only be understood by examining the meeting requests that Bernhardt and his office use to maintain his schedule. Those meeting requests have never been made public, contradicting Bernhardt’s February statement to Congress that “the details of the schedule I receive each day are publicly provided.”