Trump’s Pick for Interior Dept. Continued Lobbying After Officially Vowing to Stop, New Files Indicate

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WASHINGTON — A previously unreleased invoice indicates that David Bernhardt, President Trump’s choice to lead the Interior Department, continued to lobby for a major client several months after he filed official papers saying that he had ended his lobbying activities.

The bill for Mr. Bernhardt’s services, dated March 2017 and labeled “Federal Lobbying,” shows, along with other documents, Mr. Bernhardt working closely with the Westlands Water District as late as April 2017, the month Mr. Trump nominated him to his current job, deputy interior secretary. In November 2016, Mr. Bernhardt had filed legal notice with the federal government formally ending his status as lobbyist.

Westlands, a powerful California agribusiness group, was one of Mr. Bernhardt’s main lobbying and legal clients between 2011 and 2016. In that time, Westlands paid Mr. Bernhardt’s firm $1.3 million for lobbying services. A New York Times investigation this year revealed how Mr. Bernhardt made it a priority at the Interior Department to promote policies long sought by Westlands, including a weakening of Endangered Species Act protections for an imperiled fish. Those changes would have freed more water from the San Francisco Bay Area for irrigation.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Bernhardt, Faith Vander Voort, said in an email that the invoice had been labeled incorrectly and that the documents did not describe lobbying activity.

“David Bernhardt did not engage in regulated lobbying activities for Westlands Water District from the date he de-registered forward,” she wrote. “Mr. Bernhardt engaged in various legal services that supported the senior employees and Directors of the Board of Westlands Water District, who are public officials, operating in their official capacity. These efforts do not constitute regulated lobbying activity.”

Mr. Bernhardt’s former firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which is based in Denver, did not respond to requests for comment. Westlands Water District did not respond to a request for comment.

The Senate Energy Committee is scheduled to decide on Thursday morning whether to send Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination as interior secretary to the full Senate for a confirmation vote. In committee hearings, Democrats criticized Mr. Bernhardt as beholden to industry while Republicans praised his depth of knowledge.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who leads the committee, last week told Mr. Bernhardt, who served in the Interior Department in the George W. Bush administration: “You come to us with a set of experience and qualifications that we really seldom see. I think it’s unparalleled.” And she voiced sympathy over accusations of ethical impropriety by Mr. Bernhardt. “It is exceptionally difficult to sit here and be told that you have lied,” she said.

Senator Murkowski did not respond to a request for comment on the new documents.

The documents, obtained under California open-records law by the environmental advocacy group Pacific Advocates and reviewed by The New York Times, include the March 2017 invoice sent to Westlands by Mr. Bernhardt’s former firm. The invoice is titled “Federal Lobbying” and itemizes the costs of services described as “Westlands Trip,” taken by Mr. Bernhardt in late January and early February 2017 from Washington through Denver, Sacramento and Chicago before heading back to Washington.

It includes a bill for $2,432.68 for Mr. Bernhardt’s travel and $25,000 “for professional services rendered” in February 2017. Ms. Vander Voort described the invoice as “inappropriately labeled by the billing department.”

Mr. Bernhardt’s activities, if they constituted lobbying, could violate federal laws requiring lobbyists to disclose their activities, according to four independent authorities on the rules.

The action described by the documents “raises ethical questions,” said Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. “He obviously was engaged in some sort of federal lobbying activity on behalf of Westlands even after he de-registered as a lobbyist.”

The documents include an email dated December 2016 from John Watts, an aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who works closely on the state’s water policy issues, to Mr. Bernhardt and Thomas Birmingham, the Westlands general manager. The subject line is “Memo: Endangered Species Act consistency of California water language.” It addresses two issues, endangered species and water rights, on which Mr. Bernhard had lobbied for Westlands.

A spokesman for Senator Feinstein did not respond to a request for comment.

Another email, dated April 19, from Johnny Amaral, the former deputy general manager of Westlands, asked Mr. Bernhardt if he could make it to a “team breakfast” the following Wednesday, April 25. Bernhardt responded, “Yes.” Three days later, Mr. Trump nominated Mr. Bernhardt to be deputy secretary of the Interior Department.

Mr. Amaral now works for another California water district, the Friant Water Authority. An email to Friant requesting comment from Mr. Amaral was not returned.

Ethics experts said the documents shed light on the close relationship Mr. Bernhardt maintained with his former lobbying client.

“The fact that he is attending a ‘team breakfast’ with Westlands just days before he’s nominated is a shocking level of connection with this lobbying client at a moment he is about to enter government,” said Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “It goes to this deep, intertwined relationship that he had.”

Cashew trees on a farm in the Westlands Water District, one of Mr. Bernhardt’s major clients as a lobbyist.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

Since his appointment to the Interior Department, Mr. Bernhardt has been criticized for using his position to enact some of the policies he pushed for as a lobbyist for Westlands Water District, a state-chartered agribusiness organization representing about 700 almond, cotton and tomato farms in the San Joaquin Valley.

As part of his May 2017 Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Bernhardt submitted a written statement to senators saying, “I have not engaged in regulated lobbying on behalf of Westlands Water District after November 18th, 2016.”

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Source: NYT

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