Interior Secretary Bernhardt’s Former Lobbying Firm Benefits From His Position

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

David Bernhardt leaves Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BFHS), a K-Street Washington lobbying firm, to come work for the Department of Interior as then-Secretary Ryan Zinke's assistant. Zinke is forced from office due to his flagrant corruption. David Bernhardt takes over from Zinke. During Bernhardt's tenure as Zinke's assistant and then replacement, DOI-related business for BFHS quadruples. Drain the swamp?

There is more drama going on in the Department of the Interior than there is on General Hospital. The latest drama involves Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. His old lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS) is making money off of his position. The revenue for BHFS is at the top of the lobbying revenue ranking for the second quarter of 2019, and $2.7 million in revenue is from just the Interior this year, according to data from the Lobbying Disclosure Act database.

BHFS “quadrupled its business related to Interior,” the Washington Post reports. In 2016, the firm made $1.2 million in revenue related to the Interior. In 2017, the year Bernhardt left the firm to be the Interior’s deputy secretary, the firm made $3.5 million in Interior related revenue and $4.8 million in 2018. In 2018, the firm made $4.8 million in Interior related revenue.

“It’s no coincidence that Secretary Bernhardt’s former firm has gotten richer since he became Interior Secretary,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project Executive Director, in a statement. 

“He is doing what their clients want at every turn so he can pave the way back to another lucrative lobbying job when he’s done at Interior, no matter what the consequences to our public lands.”

John Bowman, Managing Director of Government Affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council characterizes Bernhardt as “far too conflicted to lead this agency, given his track record of advocating for oil and gas, mining, agribusiness interests, and other polluters.

Conflicts of interest and investigations

A Politico investigation revealed that Bernhardt started to work on policies not too long after becoming deputy secretary that would benefit one of his former clients while working for BHFS, the Westlands Water District in Central California. “Bernhardt’s efforts, beginning in at least October 2017, included shaping the department's response to a key portion of a water infrastructure law he had helped pass as a lobbyist for California farmers, recently released calendars show,” according to the investigation.

Just after Bernhardt was installed as the Interior Secretary in April, the Interior Department’s internal watchdog began investigating ethics complaints against him. The ethics complaints included allegations that he used his position as deputy secretary to advance policy that would benefit his former client and that he worked as a lobbyist even after filing paperwork declaring he had stopped working as one.

A letter from Mary Kendall, the Deputy Inspector General, to Senators Elizabeth Warren and Richard Blumenthal, stated that “the Department of the Interior has received seven complaints, including yours, from a wide assortment of complaints alleging various potential conflict of interest and other violations by then Deputy Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt.”

Senator Ron Wyden sent a letter to Jessie K. Liu, a U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, urging her office to open an investigation into “potential civil and criminal violations of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995” by Bernhardt’s former firm and Bernhardt himself.

What you can do

There is something you can do as a concerned citizen. Sign the Western Values Project petition urging Congress to investigate Bernhardt’s violations of the ethics code.