Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, who's facing a tough re-election campaign in 2020, has been trying to distance himself from President Donald Trump, a generally unpopular figure in this increasingly blue state. But his efforts are undermined by his own record, including the fact that he's only voted against one major Trump nominee since the president took office.
And Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Trump's pick to fill the department's top job full-time, isn't going to be number two.
Bernhardt, Interior's deputy secretary, who took over for scandal-plagued predecessor Ryan Zinke after the latter's January 2 resignation, is portrayed as an oil industry stooge by major environmental and public-lands advocates such as the Center for Western Priorities and the Western Values Project. But Gardner love, love, loves him some Bernhardt, in part because of a multitude of Denver and Colorado connections that his critics see as contributing to the problem.
In his statement about the Bernhardt nomination, Gardner enthuses: "This is fantastic news for Colorado. I’ve known David Bernhardt for many years and have worked closely with him over the last two years to advance Colorado priorities. As a native Coloradan from the Western Slope, David knows how important public lands are to our state and has a keen understanding of the issues Coloradans face every day. From moving the Bureau of Land Management to the West to promoting conservation programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Coloradans will be lucky to have David lead our Interior Department. I look forward to supporting him throughout the confirmation process."
The release containing Gardner's comments is supplemented by a document that merges letters of support for Bernhardt's nomination as Deputy Interior Secretary in 2017 from the Colorado River District, Colorado Water Congress, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Outdoor Recreation Industry Roundtable, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The missives are accessible below.
Gardner's reaction to the move to promote Bernhardt prompted an equal and opposite reaction from Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Jen Rokala, who recently spoke to Westword for a post headlined "Why Colorado Politicians Who Pledge to Protect Public Lands Will Win in 2020."
Rokala states that "David Bernhardt’s nomination is an affront to America’s parks and public lands. As an oil and gas lobbyist, Bernhardt pushed to open vast swaths of public lands for drilling and mining. As deputy secretary, he was behind some of the worst policy decisions of Secretary Zinke’s sad tenure, including stripping protections for imperiled wildlife. Bernhardt even used the government shutdown to approve drilling permits for companies linked to his former clients."
She adds: "As senators consider Bernhardt’s nomination, it’s crucial they remember that the ongoing investigations into Ryan Zinke’s conduct intersect with policies that David Bernhardt has helped enact. Otherwise, we'll see another Interior secretary fall into the same ethical abyss that ended Ryan Zinke's political career. If a walking conflict of interest like David Bernhardt gets confirmed, oversight and true transparency will be more important than ever."
Even before Trump nominated Bernhardt, CWP came up with a list of nineteen actions by him that the organization sees as representing such conflicts, as seen in the following graphic.
This Google spreadsheet boasts links documenting each of these assertions.
Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger is equally sour on Bernhardt.
"With his unprecedented attacks on public lands and wildlife, as well as his repeated ethical lapses that led to 17 investigations, Ryan Zinke left the Interior Department in shambles and lost the trust of the American people," Saeger allows in a statement of his own. "Given the chance, David Bernhardt will pick up right where Zinke left off and continue selling out America’s public lands to the highest special interest bidders. Bernhardt is an ex-lobbyist and the ultimate DC-swamp creature with so many potential conflicts of interest that he has to carry around a list of his former clients. He is simply too conflicted to be our next Interior Secretary, and the Senate should vote his nomination down."
Saeger's "swamp creature" reference is emphasized at DavidBernhardt.org, a website created by WVP to argue against his nomination. Among the spotlighted items is the following timeline charting the ways he "has gone round and round through the revolving door between industry and government."
Bernhardt began his career in the 1990s working for Scott McInnis (R-CO) before taking a position in the Washington lobbying shop of Brownstein, Hyatt and Farber, where he lobbied on behalf of oil and chemical companies.
In 2001, Bernhardt went to work for the Interior Department. His time at Interior was marred by scandal, including when he replaced independent government analysis in congressional testimony with reports funded by oil companies, oversaw the forced resignation of a whistleblower, and served as Counselor to the Secretary when the Jack Abramoff corruption scandal was ravaging the Interior Department.
In 2009, Bernhardt returned to Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, and became the head of its natural resources lobbying shop, where his clients included oil, gas, and mining companies.
In August 2017, Bernhardt was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of the Interior. Since then, he has led Interior’s review of the 2015 sage grouse plans, started weakening the Endangered Species Act, rescinded Obama-era climate change and conservation policies, and undermined Interior’s ability to make decisions based on the best available scientific research, just to name a few of his attacks on public lands and wildlife.
Thus far, Bernhardt's confirmation hearing hasn't been scheduled. But when it is, the Western Values Project hopes inquisitors ask him the following questions:
Has Bernhardt been in communication with Halliburton or anyone representing Halliburton since becoming Deputy Secretary of the Interior?
Former Secretary Zinke was the subject of 17 investigations. His downfall was brought about in part by his involvement in a sweetheart real estate deal that his family’s foundation was pursuing with private developers, including the chairman of Halliburton. Halliburton is one of Bernhardt’s former clients and is included on his ethics recusal. Since becoming Deputy Secretary of the Interior, has Bernhardt been in communication with Halliburton or anyone representing Halliburton? Did Bernhardt have any knowledge of the meeting Zinke held in his office with the Halliburton chairman, or of the sweetheart real estate deal? Will the pending investigation into Zinke continue? What was Bernhardt’s involvement in Interior’s rescinding fracking regulations that benefited Haliburton?
How does Bernhardt plan to solve problems plaguing the department as Secretary of the Interior?
Under Ryan Zinke’s leadership and Bernhardt’s direction, Interior limited public participation, suppressed science, and permeated a culture of corruption. The department also has been plagued by pervasive sexual harassment and low employee morale. How does Bernhardt plan to solve these problems as Secretary of the Interior?
Has Bernhardt honored his ethics recusals?
How does he explain multiple instances of former clients benefiting from Interior decisions under his leadership? With Bernhardt now overseeing the entire department, how does he intend to honor his ethics recusals with his former lobbying clients that have business before the department?
Has Bernhardt given former clients preferential access?
Has Bernhardt given former clients preferential access to decision-making around two of his major initiatives — reforming the Endangered Species Act and reviewing the cooperative sage grouse agreements?
Will Bernhardt promise not to sell public lands or transfer them to the states?
Will he ensure access to public lands by supporting and funding programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)?
What was Bernhardt’s role in re-assigning Interior career employees?
An Interior Department board, chaired by Bernhardt, vindictively reassigned employees without consultation leading to Interior’s own inspector general issuing a report criticizing how the board failed to document its plan or gather necessary information when reassigning senior executives. What was Bernhardt’s role in re-assigning Interior career employees, including the controversial reassignment of the Yellowstone National Park Superintendent? Why wasn’t proper documentation of the reassignments kept?
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Can the American people trust that corruption and special interest favors won't happen again?
During Bernhardt’s past tenure as Interior Solicitor during the George W. Bush administration, the department was similarly plagued by scandal and corruption, including having high-level officials involved in the ex-casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff scandal. Recently, Bernhardt was at the center of an Interior non-decision on the approval of a Native American casino in Connecticut. The casino was opposed by MGM Grand, who is being represented by Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm. With Bernhardt as Secretary, how can the American people be sure that corruption and special interest lobbyist favors won’t happen again?
Whatever happens with Bernhardt, Gardner's support of him makes it clear that the distance between him and President Trump isn't great. Expect that to be a major topic raised by his opponents as the 2020 election draws nearer.
Click to read Senator Cory Gardner's collection of support letters for David Bernhardt's 2017 nomination as Deputy Interior Secretary.