Top Democrat Assails Bernhardt’s Ethics at Senate Hearing on His Interior Secretary Nomination

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WASHINGTON — President Trump’s choice to lead the Interior Department, David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist who has been accused of conflicts of interest, faced questioning Thursday from senators who must decide whether he is the right person to oversee some 500 million acres of public land and vast coastal waters.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy Committee, where Mr. Bernhardt testified, called his qualifications “unparalleled,” and other Republicans praised his experience and ethics. But a senior Democrat, Ron Wyden of Oregon, unleashed a scathing rebuke, telling Mr. Bernhardt, “You’re just another corrupt official.”

Seated behind him in the hearing room was a protester costumed as a green swamp creature, an apparent reference to Mr. Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” of lobbyist influence in Washington policy circles.

Mr. Bernhardt contended that one of his top priorities would be to focus on overhauling the ethics culture of the agency, which has a history of corruption and scandals. He said in his prepared remarks he aimed “to ingrain a culture of ethical compliance.”

In particular, Mr. Bernhardt said he hoped to overhaul the reputation of an agency that became notorious for corruption scandals during the George W. Bush administration, when the deputy secretary of the interior, J. Steven Griles, was sentenced to prison for lying to a Senate committee about his ties to the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Mr. Bernhardt was the Interior Department’s solicitor then.

More recently, the Trump administration’s previous interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, resigned amid allegations of ethics misconduct. Mr. Zinke has denied any wrongdoing.

Mr. Bernhardt also vowed to balance conservation of public lands with a push to develop oil and gas, citing his boyhood in the rural town of Rifle, Colorado, and summers spent on his grandparents’ ranch in Wyoming. “You know that I love the outdoors and that I hunt and fish,” he said.

Outside the Senate office building where he spoke, protesters dressed as polar bears marched with signs reading, “Save the Arctic from Bernhardt,” and “Bernhardt: Most Conflicted Member of Trump’s Cabinet.”

The committee must decide whether to send Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination to the full Senate for a vote.

Mr. Bernhardt, who has served as deputy secretary since August 2017, has been a powerful force advancing what Mr. Trump has called his “energy dominance” agenda of opening federal lands and waters to oil drilling and energy exploration. He was nominated by Mr. Trump after the departure of Mr. Zinke.

He has been dogged through his tenure by accusations of conflicts of interest. In particular, Mr. Bernhardt’s critics contend that, given his past as a lobbyist and lawyer for energy and agricultural interests, his policy decisions stand to benefit former clients.

Senator Wyden, the Oregon Democrat, pressed him on those issues.

“Mr. Bernhardt, you came to my office to tell me that you were the guy who stood up for ethics in the George W. Bush administration,” he said, noting that Mr. Bernhardt claimed that he had told Julie MacDonald, a Bush administration official who resigned over revelations that she had interfered with the scientific findings of federal biologists, to “clean up her act.”

But Senator Wyden then cited documents revealed in a New York Times investigation published this week showing that Mr. Bernhardt had intervened to block the release of a scientific report revealing the threat presented by three widely used pesticides to hundreds of endangered species, including the kit fox and the seaside sparrow.

“You asked to come to my office to say your ethics are unimpeachable,” Senator Wyden said. “But these documents make it look like you’re just another corrupt official. Why would you come to my office to lie to me about your ethics? Just like Julie MacDonald, you meddled in the science.”

Mr. Bernhardt pushed back against the Times investigation, saying, “The news report you’re citing is not even close to true.”


Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon accused Mr. Bernhardt of intervening to block the release of a scientific report on pesticides.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

If confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Bernhardt will become one of two former lobbyists overseeing the nation’s top environmental agencies. The other is Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who heads the Environmental Protection Agency. Like Mr. Bernhardt, Mr. Wheeler was a deputy who ascended to lead his agency after his former boss — Scott Pruitt, in the case of the E.P.A. — resigned amid allegations of corruption.

As a partner in the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Mr. Bernhardt lobbied for the oil companies Cobalt International Energy and Samson Resources. His legal clients included the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents dozens of oil companies, and Halliburton Energy Services, the oil and gas extraction firm that was led by Dick Cheney before he became vice president.

As deputy secretary of the Interior Department, Mr. Bernhardt was the lead author of a revision of a program to protect tens of millions of acres of habitat of the imperiled sage grouse, a puffy-chested, chicken-like bird found in 10 oil-rich Western states. His final sage grouse plan, issued this month, would strip away protections from about nine million acres of the bird’s habitat, a move that, in a stroke, opened up more land to oil and gas drilling than any other single policy action by the Trump administration.

Mr. Bernhardt is also the chief author of a major plan, expected to be finalized and made public in the days or weeks after his Senate confirmation, that would allow the federal government to lease almost any part of the United States coastline to oil and gas companies for offshore drilling.

In Thursday’s Senate hearing, Mr. Bernhardt also faced criticism for his actions during the 35-day government shutdown this year.

During that time, while thousands of federal employees were furloughed and government services shut down, Mr. Bernhardt brought back workers in offices that permit and inspect oil and gas drilling. In that period, those workers approved 15 new leases for drilling on public lands as well as 71 new permits for offshore drilling, and more than 50 recipients of the offshore drilling permits were companies that sit on the board of directors of the National Ocean Industries Association, a former client of Mr. Bernhardt’s.

Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Democrat of Nevada, pressed Mr. Bernhardt as to why he led the push to continue the agency’s work on drilling but not on conservation, maintaining national parks or permitting renewable energy programs.

Mr. Bernhardt said he made those decisions in part to continue with the safety inspections of offshore drilling vessels. And he said that the restrictions of the agency’s budget allowed for paid work on the oil and gas programs, but not on conservation and parks programs, in part because when the agency permits an oil or gas lease, it then receives a fee from the company, which can be used to pay workers in the program.

“There was money to do certain things and not other things,” he said. “I made the decision to put folks to work that I could.”

Key Republicans are backing Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination, which is expected to pass the Senate. In 2017, he was confirmed to his post as deputy interior secretary on a party-line vote of 53 to 43.

However, Mr. Bernhardt’s opponents have doubled down on a campaign that they hope will turn a handful Republican votes against him.

Protesters in the audience Thursday at the Senate hearing.CreditSarah Silbiger/The New York Times

One advocacy group, the Western Values Project, has opened a television and digital advertising campaign in Arizona and Colorado aimed at persuading the Republican senators of those states, Martha McSally and Cory Gardner, to vote against Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination. Both of those senators are up for re-election in 2020 in states where polling shows that voters value conservation of public lands and national parks.

Senator McSally pressed Mr. Bernhardt over reports of sexual harassment in the Interior Department’s National Park Service, particularly over the case of Christine Lehnertz, the first female superintendent of the Grand Canyon, who was hired to investigate reports of sexual harassment but resigned this year after her attorney said she received “malicious and defamatory” treatment.

“When I see what’s going on at Grand Canyon National Park over the years, it sounds atrocious,” said Senator McSally, who this month revealed that she was raped while serving in the Air Force. “It sounds like a bunch of frat boys, bullying and harassing.”

She told Mr. Bernhardt, “This is about your leadership, up and down the chain.”

Mr. Bernhardt responded that he has worked systemically to address issues of sexual harassment and, noting his 13-year-old daughter, who sat behind him during his testimony, added, “I cannot have an environment where if Katie, my daughter, wants to work at the National Park Service, she would be threatened.”

Senator Gardner, who described himself as a lifelong friend of Mr. Bernhardt’s, offered effusive praise of his fellow Coloradan. “David Bernhardt is an honest man who puts all his cards on the table and keeps his word,” said Senator Gardner, who appeared to grow angry at allegations of Mr. Bernhardt’s ethical conflicts. “He is a champion of conservation,” he said. “There is zero question that Mr. Bernhardt is qualified to do this job.”

Other opponents of Mr. Bernhardt are focused on highlighting accusations of ethical violations, some of which stem from a February New York Times investigation that revealed that Mr. Bernhardt had personally directed a policy to weaken endangered species protections on a California fish, a change that could directly benefit one of his former lobbying clients, the Westlands Water District.

At least four senators and four government ethics watchdog groups have requested that the Interior Department’s inspector general open an investigation into the matter. It is not known if an investigation is underway.

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