Congress

GOP members confirm Bernhardt met with group tied to ex-client

Democrats might be focusing on meetings and calls kept off Interior secretary’s official calendar

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt testifies during his Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing on March 28, 2019. (File photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans on two House committees probing Interior Secretary David Bernhardt acknowledged in a report Thursday that the attorney and former energy lobbyist appeared to have met with the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, a trade group affiliated with a former Bernhardt client.

The joint report from Republican staff on the House Oversight and Reform, and Natural Resources committees also said ethics officials at the Interior Department approved the meeting with the trade group. The report, by acknowledging the meeting, may also indicate where the majority Democrats are focusing their examination into whether Bernhardt kept phone calls and meetings with industry representatives and groups off his public calendar.

[Bernhardt defends Interior public records review policy]

Bernhardt, who became secretary in December 2018 after serving as deputy secretary, signed an ethics pledge when he joined the department to recuse himself from meetings with former clients. He listed the U.S. Oil and Gas Association as a client. The group’s website lists the Louisiana association as one of its four divisions.

Democrats are looking into Bernhardt’s practice of keeping a personal itinerary on a Google document, separate from his public calendar. The Google document was regularly overwritten by the scheduling staff.

The meeting between Bernhardt and LMOGA “did appear to take place,” according to department emails obtained by the committees, the GOP report stated. But Republicans said the ethics official’s approval made it lawful.

“LMOGA appears to have an association to an entity on Bernhardt’s recusal list, U.S. Oil and Gas Association, but it does not appear that this association would require a recusal in all circumstance,” the report said. “In any event, LMOGA had not been identified by career ethics officials at DOI as an entity covered by Bernhardt’s ethics agreement.”

“This report should serve as the final word on this matter,” said Oversight and Reform ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and Natural Resources ranking member Rob Bishop, R-Utah, in a statement released with the report. “This report contains the evidence of [Bernhardt’s] strict adherence to the spirit and letter of the laws by which his department is governed.”

Republicans said an ethics official had approved the attendance of LMOGA and Statoil, an oil and gas company that was also listed on Bernhardt’s ethics pledge, for a meeting with him and other fossil fuel companies. Because more than five entities would attend the meeting, the official said, there would be no conflict as long as “specific party matters” were not discussed. The report doesn’t say when the meeting was held.

In an excerpt of an email sent to Bernhardt’s administrative staff attached to the report, Interior ethics official Ed McDonnell said Statoil was a former client and to “avoid the risk of inadvertently violating” the ethics pledge, it would be “prudent” to have any former employer or client “sit out the meeting.” The company didn’t attend, the report said.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group that has investigated ethics issues at Interior under both Democratic and Republican administrations, said Bernhardt’s meeting with LMOGA “clearly violates the spirit of the pledge.”

Brian said a key question is whether the ethics official knew the relationship between the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association and its parent organization. She said McDonnell should’ve treated LMOGA and Statoil the same way and “there’s also no doubt Bernhardt well knew that they were a former client.”

“Someone was playing games. I just can’t quite tell who,” Brian said.

Scott de la Vega, director of the department’s ethics office, said in a statement that the meeting with LMOGA “did not violate any laws, regulations, or his Ethics Pledge.”

House Natural Resources Chairman Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., told CQ Roll Call in a statement that the report showed Republicans acknowledge Bernhardt has potential ethics problems regarding the meeting.

“People who go out on a limb to defend this administration put their credibility at serious risk. Reviews of the administration’s ethics and disclosure practices are ongoing, and folks would be wise to wait until all the evidence is in before coming to any conclusions,” Grijalva said. “It’s not surprising that House Republicans are eager to lay across the tracks for the president, but to me, this report looks like they know there is a problem here.”

In a statement to CQ Roll Call, House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., said his committee “still has unanswered questions about who Secretary David Bernhardt met with, when, and why.” A spokesman for Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee said he couldn’t discuss when they plan to complete their investigation.

CQ Roll Call first reported in April that versions of Bernhardt’s schedules posted online two days before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to approve his nomination to be secretary contained over 260 differences from calendars previously released by the department.

[Bernhardt’s office acknowledges meetings left off schedule]

Meetings previously described as “external” or “internal” were with representatives of fossil fuel, timber and mining interests, as well as other entities, including scheduled encounters with executives at Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell. More than 100 of them involved certain policy items, like endangered species and public records law.

Democratic lawmakers said the practice appeared to violate federal records law. Last month the National Archives found the department didn’t do anything illegal, and the GOP report makes the same claim.

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