Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2019

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Guest column:

Think Zinke was awful? Bernhardt could be worse

Riding a horse to his first day on the job, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke drew a lot of attention when he joined the Trump administration. Though he came with the veneer of a plan to emulate iconic conservationist Theodore Roosevelt, much like his backward cowboy hat and his oversized persona, Zinke’s plan didn’t work.

Less than two years into his tenure, Zinke resigned in scandal after President Donald Trump made it clear he would be fired. The ethical scars and the culture of corruption Zinke left at Interior will take generations to clean up. But the president’s nominee to replace Zinke could make it worse.

While the name David Bernhardt is well known in D.C’s proverbial smoke-filled rooms, he is not nearly as well-known as many other Trump Cabinet members.

But with his nomination to ascend to secretary of America’s largest land managing agency, it’s time to get to know the man behind the curtain.

Bernhardt was part of the department’s leadership during some of the agency’s darkest days when convicted felon and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff roamed the halls of Interior wielding influence and bribes for his casino clients. He stood by as oil lobbyist-funded soirees for Bureau of Land Management employees were happening at the agency. These scandals led to another Interior secretary’s early retirement.

Afterward, Bernhardt landed a gig with natural resource extraction lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he leveraged his experience in government on behalf of clients like Halliburton, Independent Petroleum Association of America, the National Ocean Industries Association, Westlands Water District and Eni Petroleum.

Bernhardt’s lobbying connections made him a natural pick to join Trump’s Interior department.

As an ex-lobbyist, Bernhardt’s list of recusals and conflicts of interest are longer than a CVS receipt — he even has to carry around a card listing all of his conflicts to remind himself.

Despite his proclaimed recusals, many of Bernhardt’s former special interest clients appear to have benefited from decisions at the department since Bernhardt started working there. Congress should not and cannot allow the same culture of corruption we experienced under Zinke to persist where special interests and corporate lobbyists reap clear windfalls from departmental decisions that are detrimental to America’s public lands, national parks, wildlife and the Western way of life.

While Bernhardt’s controversial confirmation as deputy secretary passed in July 2017, Congress must not make the same mistake twice. It is abundantly clear that Bernhardt is simply too conflicted to manage and protect America’s public lands. We must demand that our elected officials reject this nomination. 

Chris Saeger is the executive director of Western Values Project, based in Whitefish, Mont., a nonprofit organization that defends America’s public lands through research and public education.