The Senate on Monday confirmed David Bernhardt, who has a history of lobbying for oil, mining and western water interests, as deputy secretary of the Interior Department.
Both of California’s Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, voted against his appointment — which was approved, 53 to 43, with little discussion.
As the No. 2 official, Bernhardt will oversee an Interior Department that has dealings with clients who have paid his law firm millions of dollars in legal and lobbying fees, including two major players in California water: Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest irrigation district, and Cadiz Inc., a company that wants to pump Mojave Desert groundwater and sell it to Southern California cities.
Bernhardt terminated his federal registration as a Westlands lobbyist late last year, after then-President-elect Trump nominated him for the deputy secretary position. But Bernhardt has continued to work for the water district, according to documents obtained through California Public Records Act requests.
Westlands emails released by Patricia Schifferle of the environmental group Pacific Advocates show that since November, Bernhardt has drafted letters for the water district, as well as reviewed a draft executive order and the text of federal water legislation that Westlands supports.
Bernhardt’s firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, also billed Westlands for a trip he took from Washington to Sacramento last winter.
In a May 1 letter to Interior’s ethics officer, Bernhardt wrote that if confirmed he would “withdraw” from his law firm partnership. He said he would recuse himself from client-related matters before the department for one year — “unless I am first authorized to” participate in them.
And at a Senate committee hearing in May, Bernhardt testified: “If I get a whiff of something coming my way that involves a client or a former client for my firm, I’m going to make that item run straight to the ethics office. And when it gets there, they’ll make whatever decision they’re going to make.”
But given Brownstein Hyatt’s extensive list of clients involved in natural resource matters overseen by Interior, environmentalists argue it is likely Bernhardt will get administration waivers to participate in decisions affecting former clients.
Westlands repeatedly has attacked endangered species protections, administered by the Interior Department, that restrict water deliveries. Bernhardt’s firm has represented Westlands in four lawsuits against the agency, and he personally argued one appeals case challenging salmon protections.
Bernhardt personally lobbied Congress and the department on behalf of Westlands from 2011 through late 2016, during which time the district paid his firm $1.38 million in fees.
Cadiz has paid Brownstein Hyatt $2.75 million in lobbying fees and granted the firm 200,000 shares of stock — with a promise of more as plans progress for the company’s potentially lucrative groundwater project.
Those plans got a boost in March, when an acting assistant director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management revoked two legal guidances that underpinned the bureau’s 2015 decision that Cadiz could not use an existing federal railroad right-of-way for a new water pipeline.
The 2015 decision, which is now under review by the department Bernhardt will help manage, has been a huge obstacle to the Cadiz project.
Monday’s confirmation marks the second time Bernhardt will have moved from Brownstein Hyatt to Interior. He left the firm in 2001 for a series of posts under President George W. Bush, rising to the position of solicitor, the department’s top lawyer. He rejoined the law firm after President Obama was elected.
The Brownstein Hyatt website, along with Bernhardt’s ethics filings, show that he and the firm have performed legal services or lobbied for clients that have dealings with virtually every branch of Interior.
They include Cobalt International Energy Inc., which holds major oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico; Rosemont Copper Co., which wants to develop a large open-pit mine in Arizona; the Navajo Nation, which has been involved in water rights settlements; and the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, which represents oil and gas producers.
In a statement Monday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said: “Finally, after months of waiting for confirmation in the Senate, I’m excited to welcome David Bernhardt back to the department.
“David’s extensive experience serving under previous Interior secretaries, his esteemed legal career, and down-right love of our land and resources is exactly what is needed to help streamline government and make the Interior and our public lands work for the American economy.”