Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s ethics recusal will expire on Saturday. The ethics pledge banned Bernhardt from decisions involving his former firm’s clients for two years.
Bernhardt was also not able to meet with these companies, unless five or more other stakeholders were present and nothing relating specifically to the companies was discussed.
But all of this is set to change on August 3.
Prior to joining the Interior Department in 2017, Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry via the Colorado law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
Among the firm’s 22 clients that Bernhardt was prohibited from engaging with for two years under his ethics recusal were energy companies Halliburton, Eni, and Statoil (now known as Equinor). Other clients included industry groups such as the U.S. Oil and Gas Association and the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).
The end of Bernhardt’s recusal was marked on Friday by a ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by the Clean Water Fund at a park across from the D.C. Interior headquarters.
During his time in the Trump administration, Bernhardt’s ethical issues have taken center stage. He has so many potential conflicts of interest to avoid that he carries around a card listing all of them so he doesn’t forget. A recent analysis by the Center for American Progress found that Bernhardt has more conflicts of interest than any other Trump Cabinet nominee. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
In April, Politico revealed that Bernhardt reportedly worked closely on matters he had pledged to recuse himself from. Just weeks after Bernhardt joined the administration, he was working on policies related key water infrastructure policy which he had worked on as a lobbyist. The ethics agreement had barred him from involving himself in “particular matters” with Westlands Water District for just one year, until August 2018.
The California water district is known for having tried to weaken the Endangered Species Act.
And in September 2018, an appearance by Bernhardt at a water industry forum in Colorado was canceled after department ethics officials concluded it could raise conflicts-of-interest concerns.
Public records released by the Western Values Project in February 2018 also that found Bernhardt’s former client, the IPAA, frequently communicated with Interior officials conducting a review of the department’s sage grouse policy. In March 2017, for instance, the IPAA thanked Bernhardt for his action as deputy secretary that benefited the oil and gas industry.
It’s not just Bernhardt though who has faced questions over conflicts of interest.
Just two weeks after Bernhardt was officially confirmed as head of the agency — following the departure of scandal-ridden former Secretary Ryan Zinke — the department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) confirmed an investigation into six other senior DOI officials who may have also potentially violated their ethics pledges due to interactions with former employers and clients.
At the same time, this week, a slew of controversial new appointments were welcomed at Interior.
William Perry Pendley, a former senior official from the Reagan administration, was appointed acting director of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Pendley, former president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, has long fought to undo the federal government’s control over public lands.
In a 2016 National Review article, Pendley wrote: “The Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold… Westerners know that only getting title to much of the land in the West will bring real change.”
Pendley has in the past sued the Interior Department on behalf of the fossil fuel industry and has tried to undermine endangered species protections along with working to reduce the size of federal lands in favor of development.
Also this week, a climate denier tied to the coal industry was appointed as a senior adviser in the department. Christian Palich previously worked as the president of the pro-Trump Ohio Coal Association until 2017. Palich comes to the Interior this week from lobbying firm Siekman, Siekman & Associates, whose clients include Halliburton and pipeline firm Sunoco Logistics. He was also previously deputy associate administrator for congressional and intergovernmental affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Palich has made numerous Fox News appearances praising President Donald Trump’s environmental rollbacks and he has frequently doubted established climate science on Twitter, calling it “junk science.”
After Trump’s election, for example, he tweeted: “Time to push fight [sic] back on all the radical enviro regs that have been illegally been [sic] brought on America over last 8 yrs.”
And finally, after 10 years, the department now has a Senate-confirmed inspector general. Mark Greenblatt — an attorney who previously worked at the Commerce Department’s Office of Inspector General — will be responsible for investigating allegations of ethics violations by Bernhardt and others at the department.
When pressed by lawmakers earlier this year on his appointment, Greenblatt asserted he had “zero intent” of shutting down any ongoing investigations into the department’s operations.