Senate panel backs Interior pick despite conflict allegation

A Senate panel has voted to put a former Washington lobbyist in charge of the Interior Department despite intense debate among senators over his links to former clients

WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel voted Thursday to put a veteran former lobbyist in charge of the Interior Department, despite a last-minute round of intense debate on allegations that he was using his federal position to benefit former industry clients.

Bernhardt represented oil and gas clients and dozens of other industries and interests at the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck lobbying firm until Trump picked him in April 2017 for what was Bernhardt's second stint at the Interior Department, initially as deputy secretary.

Bernhardt says he has complied with all ethics laws and codes, and Interior's ethics office has sanctioned how he deals with former clients that have business before the agency. But Democrats and environmental groups accuse him of using his position at Interior to shape regulations and legislation in favor of big agriculture, oil and gas interests, and other former clients.

The confirmation vote Thursday was overshadowed by questions about his actions into 2017, after he gave up his registration as a lobbyist in anticipation of his appointment to Interior.

A previously unreported set of invoices and emails, obtained by California water-law expert Patricia Schifferle under open-records laws, appear to show "federal lobbying" payments continuing into spring 2017 between Bernhardt, his firm, and the longtime lobbying client, Westlands Water District, a politically powerful California public water district that is one of the largest irrigation water utilities in the country.

Schifferle also is a consultant to conservation groups. The New York Times first reported Thursday on the invoice and some of the other documents.

Westlands has sought a series of breaks from Interior and other federal agencies, including approving favorable terms for water contracts and easing protections for endangered native fish to benefit Westlands and other water contractors.

Bernhardt was not at Thursday's hearing. Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Thursday, "these allegations are nearly 2 years old and there is nothing to them."

She said Bernhardt did no lobbying for Westlands after he gave up his registration as a lobbyist to join Interior.

Vander Voort said a Westlands invoice that showed Bernhardt providing "federal lobbying" for the water agency in 2017 was actually to cover Bernhardt's costs for meeting with Westlands officials, not lobbying, but was "inappropriately labeled by the billing department."

Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, cited Bernhardt's experience and expertise in defending him Thursday.

She linked the ethics allegations against him to unspecified, "pretty well-funded groups that are working very hard and very energetically against his nomination."

The Department of Interior's Office of the Inspector General said earlier this week it was reviewing documents provided by Bernhardt's opponents on his work with the California water district. But it has not yet said whether it would launch a formal investigation.

Murkowski said no government office has an open investigation into Bernhardt underway. She called allegations that Bernhardt was working to shape federal water oversight in favor of Westlands old and unproven.

"I am aware of no substantiation of them whatsoever," Murkowski said.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon repeated a plea from Democrats for the Senate to stop action on Bernhardt's nomination at least until the Interior Department's internal watchdog has time to examine allegations more closely.

Claims now that Bernhardt is continuing to work on behalf of old clients "make me feel very strongly we shouldn't go forward" with Bernhardt's nomination, he said.

"I'm the longest-serving member of this committee. I've been chair of this committee," Wyden said. "I've moved plenty of Republicans through. We've never had a situation like this."

Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico voted with Republicans in approving Bernhardt, as did independent Angus King of Maine.

At Interior, Bernhardt has worked to further Trump's goals of making business-friendly regulatory decisions and promoting oil and gas development on public lands, among other aims. Under Bernhardt, for example, the agency worked through the winter federal government shutdown to continue granting permits to oil and gas companies, even as it and other agencies scaled back other, non-emergency services to the public.