Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt has weakened transparency and accountability at the Department of Interior. His schedule that is released to the public is suspiciously vague and omits key details about meetings he attends; Western Values Project has received a shockingly low number of emails back from Bernhardt when we’ve requested records related to Bernhardt, and his lack of proper documentation has even been the subject of an internal investigation. WVP also discovered that after media reports first reported that Bernhardt had lobbied for a company run by a Ukrainian billionaire, Bernhardt’s name was mysteriously removed from the company’s lobbying records.
Bernhardt’s public schedule omits key details about the meetings he attends, only including vague descriptions of meetings that fail to identify attendees or the topic(s) discussed.
For example, his calendar lists meetings such as:
- “(No title)” from 2pm to 3pm on October 30, 2017; “Meeting with Energy Company” from 1pm to 1:45pm on November 8, 2017; “Call” from 1pm to 1:15pm on December 22, 2017; “Reception” from 4pm to 6pm on February 16, 2018; [Calendars | U.S. Department of the Interior]
- From August 2017 to April 2018 Bernhardt has seven meetings titled “External Meeting” on his schedule.
- From November 2017 to January 2018 he has two meetings titled “Energy Meeting” on his schedule.
- From November 2017 to January 2018 he has two meetings titled “Briefing” on his schedule.
- From December 2017 to January 2018 he has two meetings titled “Meeting” on his schedule.
- From March 2018 to April 2018 he has two meetings titled “Event” on his schedule.
Lack of Public Records
Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests regarding Bernhardt’s work for the agency are producing suspiciously limited results. For instance, in the over 50,900 pages of responsive records WVP has received from Interior, there have only been two emails from Bernhardt.
Fewer than 40% of Western Values Project (WVP) FOIA requests regarding Bernhardt’s calendars, communications, and ethics agreement have produced responsive documents.
WVP has submitted 26 FOIA requests related to Bernhardt, but Interior has only produced documents for ten of them.
Outstanding records Interior has yet to fill include:
- Interior has yet to send records in response to a January, 26 2018 request for documents outlining Bernhardt’s potential conflicts of interest and ethics guidance.
- Interior has yet to send records in response to an April 13, 2018 request related to a speech he gave to a National Mining Association event at the Trump Hotel.
- Interior has yet to send records in response to a May 4, 2018 request for communications between Bernhardt’s former employer, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, LLP counsel Ryan Smith, Bernhardt, and his staff.
The lack of documentation showing Bernhardt’s communications regarding sage grouse protections is particularly suspicious.
- In response to an August 17, 2017 FOIA request for all communications related to sage grouse protections, Interior turned over 13,000 documents to WVP. These documents did not include a single e-mail sent by Bernhardt, despite his being in charge of revisions to the sage grouse cooperative agreement. [“Zinke’s deputy: Civil, self-confident and under the radar,” Greenwire, 08/10/18]
The lack of public records requests has forced Western Values Project to sue the Interior Department. In July 2018, on behalf of WVP, Democracy Forward filed suit against the Trump administration for failing to release documents detailing whether Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has complied with ethics requirements, including his pledge to recuse himself from working on matters involving his former clients, several of whom have benefitted from Department of Interior (DOI) decisions after Bernhardt took office. The case was filed after Interior failed to fulfill ten Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests by Western Values Project for Bernhardt’s official communications and other work.
Inspector General Investigations
Bernhardt’s lack of proper documentation has been the subject of an internal investigation. The Interior’s Inspector General (IG) investigated Bernhardt’s efforts to reassign career staff.
- Bernhardt chairs the Executive Resources Board (“ERB”). [“Zinke’s deputy: Civil, self-confident and under the radar,” Greenwire, 08/10/18]
- The ERB tried to reassign the Yellowstone National Park Superintendent, a 42 and a half year veteran of the agency, to Washington. (He retired instead). [“Harsh IG report spurred shift in executive reassignments,” Greenwire, 07/09/18]
- The IG opened an investigation into whether the rules pertaining to staff reassignment were followed by the ERB. [“Reassignment of Senior Executives at U.S. Department of the Interior,” U.S. Dept. of Interior, 04/10/18]
- The Interior’s IG issued a report criticizing how the Executive Resources Board (“ERB”), chaired by Bernhardt, failed to document its plan or gather necessary information when reassigning senior executives. [“Zinke’s deputy: Civil, self-confident and under the radar,” Greenwire, 08/10/18]
- Bernhardt responded to criticism in the IG report about senior executive reassignments by defending the ERB’s actions as lawful. [“IG finds problems with senior executive moves” Greenwire, 04/11/18]
- Bernhardt’s publicly said that “not everyone is going to be happy.” [“Harsh IG report spurred shift in executive reassignments,” Greenwire, 07/09/18]
Many questions remain as to Bernhardt’s involvement in former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s 15+ federal investigations. OIG reports into Zinke’s alleged abuse of his official position would have been delivered to Bernhardt a month prior to their release to the general public. One such report found that Zinke had wasted $25,000 in taxpayer dollars on a family trip to Turkey, took his campaign donors boating, and told his staff to explore giving his wife a volunteer job at Interior to avoid reimbursing taxpayers for her travel. Yet, Bernhardt was sympathetic towards Zinke trying to bring his wife along to travel in federal vehicles– a clear violation of Interior policy, saying that the policy didn’t necessarily apply to the Secretary.
Mysterious Changes in Lobbying Reports
In April 2017, just days after media reports of Bernhardt lobbying for Access Industries, a company run by Leonard Blavatnik, Ukrainian-born oligarch who made billions doing business with newly sanctioned Russian oligarchs, five amendments were filed to Access Industries’ lobbying reports to remove Bernhardt’s name from the reports.
The unamended lobbying reports for Access Industries show that Bernhardt was a lobbyist for the company from the 2nd quarter of 2011 through the 2nd quarter of 2012. However, on April 25 and April 26, 2017, amendments were filed with the Senate to remove Bernhardt from those disclosures. However, he is still listed as a lobbyist for Access Industries in their initial lobbying report, and no amendment appears to have been filed to remove him from it.