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Newly disclosed meetings with industry create ethics questions for Interior secretary

Lawmakers interested interior secretary’s calendars because of former career as energy lobbyist

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s daily schedules have some interesting entries. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s daily schedules have some interesting entries. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Recently posted versions of acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s daily schedules contain at least 260 differences from his original schedules, with the newest records showing meetings previously described as “external” or “internal” were actually with representatives of fossil fuel, timber, mining and other industries, according to a review by CQ Roll Call.

Events left out of the original calendars but now disclosed or detailed further include a keynote address at the Trump International Hotel in Washington for the industry group Domestic Energy Producers Alliance, encounters with executives at Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell, and a meeting with the chairman of a conservative group Bernhardt previously represented in litigation that environmentalists believe was geared toward weakening the Endangered Species Act.

Lawmakers are interested in his calendars because of his previous career as an energy lobbyist, which required him to sign an ethics agreement when he joined the Interior Department in August 2017 that prohibits him from “personally and substantially” participating in “any particular matter” involving groups he used to represent.

Bernhardt’s original schedules only vaguely described with whom he met. Interior quietly posted the new documents on April 2, two days before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved his nomination to become the secretary in a non-acting capacity. The full Senate could vote on his nomination as soon as this week.

The previously unreported details of the meetings raise fresh questions about how he’s spent his time as a government official and how he’s adhered to federal record-keeping laws.

The new records, which Interior calls “daily cards,” are summaries of Bernhardt’s calendar the department say served as reminders for his “upcoming events.”

In a statement, Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Bernhardt is “committed to securing written advice before taking any action involving former lobbying clients.”

“[He] actively seeks and consults with the department’s designated ethics officials for advice on particular matters involving former clients, and the acting secretary has implemented a robust screening process to ensure that he does not meet with his former firm or former clients to participate in particular matters involving specific parties that the acting secretary has committed to recuse himself from,” Vander Voort said April 5.

More than 100 of the previously undetailed interactions involved meetings on policy items, including the federally protected American burying beetle and sage grouse, implementation of public records law, litigation around national monuments and numerous specific environmental impact statements.

Industry meetings

Versions of the daily card for Feb. 27, 2018, shows Bernhardt had a 10:30 a.m. meeting with Jean Sagouspe, chairman of the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability, or CESAR, which is supported by conservative and libertarian groups who oppose many federal environmental regulations.

Bernhardt was a director at CESAR, and represented the group in litigation against the Fish and Wildlife Service to enforce protections of the American eel. Environmentalists have said the case was a legal tactic to make the Endangered Species Act unworkable and force lawmakers to rewrite it.

Visitor logs show that Sagouspe arrived at Interior at roughly 8:30 a.m. that day. The meeting is not on Bernhardt’s public calendar.

Another card for May 23, 2018, shows Bernhardt scheduled to meet with Cimarex Energy, a Denver-based natural gas company and member of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, another former client.

And on May 30 he was scheduled to meet with Rick Tallant, vice president of product for Shell Oil, a member of the National Ocean Industries Association, also a former client.

The ethics agreement lists CESAR, IPAA and NOIA as the organizations with whom he is not supposed to consult for at least a year after joining the department.

Bernhardt did not meet with Sagouspe during that time and day, but was instead in the building to meet with Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Brenda Burman, according to Vander Voort.

She also said the recusals from IPAA and NOIA did not apply to meetings with Cimarex or Shell Oil because “while he is recused from participating in particular matters involving specific parties” in each association, “the recusal does not automatically extend to all members.”

Lawmaker contacts

The new records also show previously undisclosed contacts between Bernhardt and Republican lawmakers, including Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Senate Environment and Public Works Chair John Barrasso of Wyoming, and the House Natural Resources Committee’s then-Chair Rob Bishop of Utah, who is now the ranking member.

Before they were publicly released, the cards were given to the House Natural Resources Committee as part of its investigation into how Bernhardt has documented his government time since joining Interior.

On Feb. 28 Bernhardt told House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona that he kept no other calendar than what was provided online previously.

But on March 25 the department provided Grijalva with roughly 7,000 documents described as his calendars and schedules, including hundreds of pages of what they described as his daily card.

“We’re not satisfied with the quality of what we received and the content of what we received,” Grijalva said April 3.

The committees are investigating how the department maintained these records, following a tip from the Center for Western Priorities, a left-leaning public lands advocacy group. The group said an Interior employee told it Bernhardt’s schedule may have been kept on a Google document that was overwritten at the end of each day.

The center then passed the information to the House Oversight and Reform and Natural Resources committees.

The deletion of daily calendars could violate federal record-keeping laws, though Interior has denied the practice took place.

“No, he did not keep his personal schedule within a Google document,” Vander Voort said.

Also watch: ‘Roll Call’s not printed by the Koch brothers’: Congressional Hits and Misses

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Correction 10:59 a.m. | This story was corrected to reflect that an Interior Department spokeswoman said that Bernhardt did not meet with the chairman of the Center for Environmental Science, Accuracy and Reliability on Feb. 27, 2018.