Trump pick for Interior deputy gets his day in the sun

Source: Corbin Hiar, E&E News reporte • Posted: Monday, May 15, 2017

President Trump’s controversial pick for deputy secretary of the Interior Department is likely to face tough questions from senators this week about his work for energy industry clients and service at the agency during the George W. Bush administration.

David Bernhardt, who is currently chairman of the natural resources department at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, will appear before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday morning.

If confirmed, Bernhardt would be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the department’s 10 bureaus and 70,000 employees. He would also have a say in virtually every major policy and management decision at Interior.

Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the panel’s top Democrat, has already signaled her intent to closely examine his fitness to serve as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s right-hand man.

“I am gravely concerned about Mr. Bernhardt’s record of working on behalf of corporations at the expense of the environment, and his history at the Department of the Interior during years plagued by ethical scandals,” she said soon after he was picked (E&E Daily, May 2).

Ethics disclosures Bernhardt made ahead of the confirmation hearing show that he was paid at least $80,000 last year by a host of energy and environmental interests (Greenwire, May 11).

Some of those companies, such as water project developer Cadiz Inc., have high-stakes business proposals pending before Interior (Greenwire, April 6).

If confirmed, Bernhardt promised to “not participate personally or substantially in any particular matter involving” his former clients or “specific parties in which I know the firm is a party or represents a party” for one year, unless he receives authorization to do so.

But Democrats are likely to ask how the nominee has sought to advance the interests of those clients during the transition at Interior, which he briefly led for Trump, and during the early months of the new administration.

They will also probably press Bernhardt to explain his role in a series of troubling incidents at Interior during the Bush administration, such as erroneous testimony about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that downplayed the risks that potential oil drilling there would pose to caribou.

Republicans, on the other hand, are likely to tout Bernhardt’s knowledge of the agency and the issues it faces. They will probably note the support he has earned from Bush administration colleagues like former Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall, who is now CEO of Ducks Unlimited, a waterfowl conservation group.

Many Republican senators, including Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have also benefited from his financial backing over the years. Bernhardt and his family have collectively donated more than $81,000 to GOP candidates or groups since 2009, according to campaign finance data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Bernhardt was unanimously confirmed to serve as Interior’s top lawyer in 2006, a position he held until 2009. He was the agency’s deputy solicitor from 2005 until 2006 and also served as counselor and deputy chief of staff to former Interior Secretary Gale Norton and as director of the department’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs.

Prior to joining the Bush administration, he worked on Capitol Hill as legal counsel to the House Rules Committee and as an aide to former Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.).

Schedule: The hearing is Thursday, May 18, at 10 a.m. in 366 Dirksen.

Witness: David Bernhardt.