The president’s pick to lead the Interior Department may have more direct experience than his predecessor, but the concerns about ethics and department leadership have not abated.
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt faced the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Thursday for a hearing on his nomination to succeed Ryan Zinke, who vacated the position in December amid several investigations into his actions while in office. Bernhardt has been serving in the role since Jan. 2.
He previously held several roles in the Office of the Secretary during the George W. Bush administration and returned to DOI in 2017. He also worked as legal counsel for former Rep. Scott McInnis from his native state of Colorado. In between his stints at DOI Bernhardt worked as a lawyer representing various clients from the oil and gas and mining industries.
Upon returning to DOI he recused himself of matters involving his former clients or employers. But that recusal is set to expire in August, leading committee members to question his commitment to preventing conflicts of interest at the department.
“I believe that public trust is a public responsibility and that maintaining an ethical culture is critical. On a personal level I have fully complied with my ethics agreement, the ethics laws and my ethics pledge and I will do so in the future,” Bernhardt said to committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). “I’ve actively sought and consulted with the department’s designated ethics officials for advice on particular matters involving clients and I have implemented an incredibly robust screening process to ensure that I don’t meet with former firm[s] or former clients to participate in particular matters involving specific parties that I’ve committed to recuse myself from.”
Bernhardt also said DOI’s ethics program has struggled with limited resources, but in the meantime the designated agency ethics official was reassigned to report directly to the solicitor and DOI has hired 42 more councilors.
But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was unimpressed. He described recent documents from DOI obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request he claimed state Bernhardt blocked an analysis from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the effects of toxic chemicals. Wyden also pressed Bernhardt about his lack of public opposition to Zinke’s past decisions and his handling of former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie McDonald, who ultimately resigned in 2007 after DOI’s Office of Inspector General alleged she had engaged in unethical conduct.
“You asked to come to tell me your ethics are unimpeachable, but these brand new documents I just saw make you sound like just another corrupt official. Why would you come to my office to lie to me about your ethics?” Wyden asked.
Bernhardt asserted he had not lied to Wyden and that, regarding the report, he thought it lacked proper legal review.
Later in the hearing, Ranking Member Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) asked Bernhardt if he would continue his recusal past its expiration considering so many of his former clients work with DOI. The acting secretary did not say whether he would but rather that his “particular skill set” would be better used in dealing with industry players.
Shutdown, other issues face the next DOI chief
Bernhardt also answered questions ranging from decisions at DOI during the partial government shutdown, its proposed reorganization and its handling of misconduct within the National Park Service.
Rep. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) asked Bernhardt what were the safety reasons that justified DOI’s recall of employees back to work during the shutdown to continue processing oil and gas permits. Bernhardt said the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement was still performing inspections for off-shore vessels.
“The reality is that the Department of the Interior has a very complex budgetary framework. And what that means — and this becomes important after people miss a couple paychecks — what that means is there was money to do certain things and not necessarily everything,” he said. “I made a decision during the shutdown that we were going to put people back to work because I could guarantee that they’d get paid. And I didn’t know how long this was going to take.”
Interior faces questions on reorg, NPS backlog during budget hearing
Bernhardt offered few specifics on DOI’s proposed reorganization, including plans to move the Bureau of Land Management, but said it would allow for better quality of life and short travel distances between BLM offices and the areas they oversee.
Multiple committee members asked Bernhardt about DOI’s history of misconduct particularly within the National Park Service. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) highlighted reports of a frat-like culture and chronic sexual harassment by park staff at Grand Canyon National Park, as well as the announcement that Christine Lehnertz, the park’s first female superintendent, will leave Sunday. Lehnertz was investigated by DOI’s IG office after complaints about her were raised, which were ultimately considered unfounded.
“Unfortunately, I know a little bit about going into a good ol’ boy network and trying to change the environment,” said McSally, who earlier this month revealed in the Senate that she was raped while serving in the Air Force. “I’m really concerned about the message that that sends to the harassers and the bulliers that somehow you can try to derail progress, you can derail a female leader and maybe get back to business as usual.”
Bernhardt also said he was disappointed at Lehnertz’s departure, and said DOI has revised its anti-harassment policy, hired anti-harassment coordinators, reprioritized funding and required all bureaus to put forward an anti-harassment plan.
“What I’ve told the management side is that if they don’t deal with these issues themselves, I’m dealing with the management,” he said. “I cannot have an environment where if Katie, my daughter [sitting behind him] wanted to work at the Park Service that’s threatening.”
McSally thanked him for his comments, reiterating that the problem was not only to do with policy but also with leadership and holding managers accountable.