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Trump Officially Nominates Former Oil Lobbyist To Lead Public Lands Agency

The U.S. Interior Department via Twitter
Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt shakes hands with President Donald Trump.

President Trump officially nominated David Bernhardt on Friday to become the nation’s next interior secretary as questions swirl about the nominee’s conflicts of interest.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently called for the interior department’s inspector general to launch an investigation into the former oil and gas lobbyist and current acting interior secretary.

“As the acting head of a major government agency, it is incumbent upon Mr. Bernhardt to be held to the highest standards of ethical conduct and to avoid any appearance of impropriety, including the perception that he has given his former client an unfair advantage and favorable treatment in the formulation of government policy,” the pair wrote in a letter to acting inspector general Mary Kendall.

The two Democrats are concerned Bernhardt weakened protections for an endangered fish and expanded California farmers’ access to water to help out clients he used to represent. Bernhardt is also facing scrutiny about his ties with oil and gas companies.

Interior secretaries with cozy relationships to companies that use public lands is nothing new.

“It’s not outside of the norm,” Eric Austin, political science professor at Montana State University, said. “But [Bernhardt] is definitely at the outer edge of our experience, in terms of his background, and that raises these concerns about conflicts of interest.”

Similar ethics allegations dogged Bernhardt’s predecessor, Ryan Zinke.

“The president is following one secretary who had some ethical issues with another appointee who also faces some ethical questions,” said Bob Keiter, an environmental law professor at the University of Utah. “In the past, presidents have tended to try to avoid that sort of problem.”

When controversial interior secretary James Watt resigned during the Reagan administration, for example, the president nominated a low-key, scandal-free political advisor .

In this case, Trump might be more concerned about advancing his pro-energy agenda than he is about Bernhardt’s brewing conflicts of interest, Keiter said. The deputy secretary is known for being a policy wonk who has aggressively pursued that particular agenda.

Bernhardt will face a confirmation hearing by the Republican-controlled Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A date for that hearing has not been set.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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