Rifle native is now No. 2 at Interior

David Bernhardt

Rifle native David Bernhardt on Monday was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become deputy secretary of the Department of Interior, with supporters praising his Western roots and values while opponents questioned his ties to industry.

The Senate voted 53-43, with Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., both supporting his confirmation.

Bernhardt, who grew up in Rifle and is now a Virginia resident, will serve as second in command to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke of Montana.

Bernhardt has worked in the Interior Department before, becoming its solicitor in 2006 during the George W. Bush administration. As an attorney, he most recently has led the natural resource law practice at the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, and acted as a registered lobbyist.

That work led to a complaint being filed last week by the group Campaign for Accountability. It asked for an investigation into whether he continued to lobby for the Westlands Water District in California after withdrawing his registration as a lobbyist for the organization on Nov. 18. Another group, Western Values Project, says he then lied to Congress at a confirmation hearing about it. 

The allegations are based on emails supposedly exchanged between the water district and Bernhardt. The Western Values Project had urged the Senate to postpone Bernhardt’s confirmation vote until an investigation could occur.

Bernhardt also came under criticism due to the potential for conflicts of interests involving other former clients and his record during the Bush administration.

Scott Braden, with Conservation Colorado, said in a statement, “We are very disappointed in how both Senators Bennet and Gardner voted on this nomination. Throughout his career, Mr. Bernhardt has worked against the public interest and our public lands, from representing fossil fuel companies to entanglements in ethical scandals.”

During his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt said he takes ethics “incredibly seriously” and he would make all decisions in the interests of the people of the United States.

In a statement released after the vote, Gardner referenced Bernhardt’s Western Slope upbringing and said he “has a deep understanding of Western land issues and will do what is right for the American people when it comes to our public lands. I’ve known David for many years and know he is the right man for the job.”

Bennet said he is grateful for Bernhardt’s “commitment to protect Colorado’s public lands. We look forward to having him back in Colorado so he can put these words into action.”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said on the Senate floor, “His relationship to our lands and the Western way of life is not second nature, it is first. … He’s from Rifle, Colorado, and the importance of public lands and wildlife flows through his veins like a lot of us who live out West.”


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