A lawyer and former lobbyist for California’s politically active Westlands Water District and other special interests pledged at a sometimes testy Senate hearing Thursday to recuse himself from issues related to his former clients if confirmed as deputy Interior Department secretary.
David Bernhardt, a well-compensated lobbyist registered on Westlands’ behalf between 2011 and late 2016, told Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee members that his one-year recusal agreements should satisfy all concerns.
“I take ethics incredibly seriously,” Bernhardt said, adding that “I have signed the exact same (recusal) agreements as my predecessors have.”
Republicans, who control the Senate by 52-48, seem untroubled by Bernhardt’s background, and the two-hour hearing Thursday morning appeared to be a prelude to a relatively straightforward confirmation. The committee’s chair, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she hopes to move Bernhardt along quickly.
Even so, some Democrats blasted the Colorado native as a denizen of the D.C. lobbying-infested “swamp” that President Donald Trump had promised to drain. They cited Bernhardt’s efforts on behalf of oil, gas and tribal interests in addition to his wide-ranging advocacy for Westlands, a public agency that contracts for irrigation water.
“His work for those clients . . . poses a problem,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the committee’s senior Democrat. “It presents at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
A Michigan Democrat, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, added that she was “very concerned” about Bernhardt’s “long history of lobbying for oil and gas,” while Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., declared Bernhardt’s nomination “shocking” because of his past work in a Republican Interior Department where alleged “scandals and controversies” had occurred.
Bernhardt rose to become Interior Department solicitor in 2006 after graduating from the University of Northern Colorado and the George Washington University National Law Center and holding a succession of other department positions. He now chairs the natural resource law practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.
If confirmed as deputy secretary, Bernhardt would effectively serve as chief operating officer of a department with 70,000 employees, a $12 billion annual budget and management responsibility for some 500 million acres.
A large, seemingly soft-spoken man, Bernhardt on Thursday avoided taking explicit policy positions, though he made clear his intention to unravel certain regulations on the use of natural resources. He cited, as a criticism rather than as praise, the expanding length of required environmental studies, while he pointedly declined to be drawn into a discussion of climate change.
“We’re a county that’s suffering from paralysis by analysis,” Bernhardt said. “We need to streamline our systems.”
Neither of California’s Democratic senators serves on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. No questions were asked Thursday about the state’s controversial proposal to build twin tunnels for conveying water around the crucial Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Questions did recur, though, about Bernhardt’s work for Westlands and for Cadiz, a California groundwater storage company. He said Thursday that if he were confirmed, he would “walk out of that firm” and leave private interests behind.
“I will follow all of the recusals I have,” Bernhardt said.
Cantwell countered that his “outlook” and “frame of reference” have nonetheless been shaped by his past clients.
Bernhardt first registered as a Westlands lobbyist in 2011. Since then, his firm reports having been paid more than $1.2 million by Westlands. The 600,000-acre district in California’s San Joaquin Valley is the nation’s largest, and it frequently interacts with the Interior Department on water deliveries, endangered species protection and more.
While serving on the Trump administration’s Interior Department transition team last November, Bernhardt filed a document declaring that he no longer represented Westlands. Acting as a lawyer, he had previously filed lawsuits on behalf of Westlands against the federal government, including a 2012 suit that sought $1 billion over the failure to provide irrigation drainage.
The irrigation drainage was promised beginning with the 1960 legislation authorizing the Central Valley Project’s San Luis Unit, but only about 82 of the planned 188 miles were built before the drain stopped at Kesterson Reservoir in Merced County.
Without drainage, otherwise-fertile soil becomes poisoned by a buildup of salty water. The accumulation of selenium-tainted groundwater at Kesterson killed and deformed thousands of birds in the mid-1980s.
The water district and the Obama administration negotiated a settlement, which has been inherited by the Trump administration. Earlier this year the House Natural Resources Committee approved a bill to implement the deal. The measure relieves Westlands of a big construction debt and shifts the burden for solving the toxic drainage problem from the government to the water district.