This press release was originally posted through Western Values Project. Western Values Project is now Accountable.US.

Who has been running the Interior Department while Secretary Ryan Zinke has been out of the office for the last three weeks? Meet Interior’s #2: Zinke’s dirty Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt.

Last year, Bernhardt made headlines after being nominated for being second-in-command at the largest land managing agency in the federal government. The controversy surrounding his nomination was in part ignited because he was a test case for the swampy revolving-door Potomac politics that President Trump had promised to drain. After serving as scandal-plagued Interior Solicitor in the George W. Bush administration, Bernhardt became a top natural resource lobbyist for extractive industries.

The Senate confirmed Bernhardt for one of the top posts at Interior despite his glaring conflicts of interest. Many of those conflicts have been covered and continue to be documented by watchdog groups like Western Values Project (WVP). Just weeks ago, WVP and Democracy Forward were forced to sue the Department of the Interior for failing to release public documents regarding decisions in which Bernhardt was involved and communications relating to his former clients after WVP’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests went unfulfilled.

Every Trump administration appointee is required to sign an ethics pledge, in which they promise to, “not for a period of 2 years” from the date of their appointment, “participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients.” And although David Bernhardt signed an ethics recusal in which he promised to recuse himself from particular matters involving his former clients until August 3, 2019, WVP has found blatant instances in which he and the Interior Department have been involved in helping his former clients.

Undermining Wildlife Protections

David Bernhardt was charged with overseeing the greater sage-grouse management plans overhaul shortly after his controversial confirmation. If the sage-grouse plans get diluted as requested by extractive corporations, critical habitat would no longer be a consideration in leasing decisions, ultimately opening up vast swaths of public lands to those same corporations for industrial development. The Bureau of Land Management issued six Instructional Memorandums to state offices that among other things de-prioritize critical sage grouse habitat.

After Interior rolled back protections across the West, the Independent Petroleum Association of America — which appears on Bernhardt’s list of recusals — joined in a thank you letter addressed to Bernhardt for his efforts that benefited the oil and gas industry.

Moreover, the second largest and seventh largest leaseholders of sage-grouse habitat in Colorado, SandRidge Exploration and Production LLC, and Bill Barrett Corporation, respectively, both used Bernhardt’s old lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, to lobby the federal government while Bernhardt worked there. Denbury Onshore LLC, the fourth largest leaseholder of sage grouse habitat in Montana, also used Bernhardt’s lobbying firm while he lobbied there.

Undermining the cooperative sage-grouse plans may foreshadow the oil and gas industry’s long-standing dream – the wholescale rollback of the Endangered Species Act; and it appears that Bernhardt is taking the lead.

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