Rifle native David Bernhardt on Thursday touted his experience and defended his ethics — denying one senator's accusation he lied about his ethical integrity — during his Senate confirmation hearing on his nomination to become secretary of the Department of Interior.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who strongly backs Bernhardt's nomination, said in introducing him to the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee that he believes Bernhardt would become the seventh Interior secretary from Colorado if confirmed. Recent secretaries from the state include Ken Salazar during the Obama administration and Gale Norton during the George W. Bush administration.
Bernhardt, an attorney, lives in Virginia now but grew up in Rifle. His experience includes serving at the department in roles including Interior solicitor during the George W. Bush administration, as deputy secretary during the Trump administration and now as acting secretary following the departure of Ryan Zinke as secretary.
"The reality is that I have spent over 15 years of a 25-year career in public service, most of that time in the Department of Interior," Bernhardt told the committee.
He said he's been told that of the previous 52 Interior secretaries, only Oscar Chapman, also an attorney from Colorado, had more Interior experience than Bernhardt has before becoming secretary in 1949.
Bernhardt's work as an attorney and lobbyist for oil and gas, water and other industries affected by Interior Department policies has caused him to come under intense scrutiny from critics over the policies he has espoused during the Trump administration and questions about possible conflicts of interest.
That scrutiny was laid bare during Thursday's hearing when Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told Bernhardt he'd read recently obtained department documents showing Bernhardt had blocked release of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report with new analysis of the dangerous effects of toxic chemicals.
"So you asked to come to my office, 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.
Bernhardt said he wasn't lying, and said a news story on the report quoted a Fish and Wildlife employee as saying the matter was handled appropriately.
Bernhardt apparently was referring to a New York Times report on his blocking release of the report, which raised concern about the chemicals' impacts on endangered species.
"I make decisions based on the same standards on every single thing that comes to my desk," Bernhardt told Wyden.
He said those standards involve looking at the facts, the applicable law, and at times policy questions. In this case he said the document involved was an interesting draft but clearly hadn't had legal review.
"In our world you can't ignore the law and come up with a scheme, you have to have it fit the law and the facts," he said.
Gardner took issue with Wyden's criticism of Bernhardt, saying people don't want to serve the country because it opens them up to such character attacks.
He said Sally Jewell, the last Interior secretary in the Obama administration, never would have been approved at the Senate committee stage for the job under the standards being applied to Bernhardt, given her background in both the oil and outdoor recreation industries.
"I get sick and the American people get sick of the double standards applied," Gardner said.
Wyden said he's not claiming Bernhardt is "big oil's guy," as the industry's lobbyists have been caught on tape making that claim themselves.
"I think you are so conflicted that if you get confirmed you're going to have one of two choices," he told Bernhardt. "One, you're going to have to disqualify yourself from so many matters, I don't know how you're going to spend your day. Or two, you're going to be making decisions that either directly or indirectly benefit former clients, regularly violating your ethics pledge."
Bernhardt said he has followed policies to recuse himself from handling some matters for a year to avoid conflict-of-interest concerns, and for two years in the case of others. He indicated he doesn't plan to continue recusing himself after that two-year period ends because it would handcuff him from working on behalf of the public.
"I'm actually pretty good about going up against these guys, and I don't have any problem with doing that," he said in an apparent reference to his former industry clients. "... I would say you want your 'A' quarterback playing for your team."
The committee didn't vote Thursday on Bernhardt's nomination. The Senate is Republican-controlled and is expected to confirm him despite the level of opposition to the nomination. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., has said he won't vote for Bernhardt because of actions Bernhardt has taken as deputy secretary, including working to revoke federal oil and gas methane controls and limit input from state and local officials on oil and gas leasing.
Bernhardt on Thursday faced questions on issues ranging from off-shore drilling to moves he's taken that critics say weaken protections under the Endangered Species Act. While Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., is generally praising Bernhardt's work and nomination, he voiced concern Thursday about Interior's proposed level of funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Congress just permanently reauthorized the LWCF program after it expired in the fall.
"Frankly, I've got to tell you this, when I saw the president's budget come out that looks embarrassingly low for LWCF," Daines said.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., raised the same concern.
Bernhardt said he's a big believer in the LWCF program and wants it to move forward.
"My view of the budget is that it's the beginning of a discussion point to work through," he said.
He said it would have been nice if LWCF had been authorized earlier because Interior instead ended up being hampered internally regarding the program's funding during the budget process.
"I'm going to fight into the next year and we'll see where we come out," he said.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities, said in a news release on Thursday, "In his time at Interior, David Bernhardt has taken a sledgehammer to wildlife protections, rolled back climate safeguards, and stripped public health rules, all to increase drilling and mining on our public lands. That's exactly what you get by putting an oil and gas lobbyist in charge of our parks, public lands, and wildlife.
"With nearly two dozen former clients that have business before the agency, David Bernhardt is a walking conflict of interest who is uniquely unfit to serve as Interior secretary."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee, said Bernhardt "has proven his ability to lead the department" and there's no question he is ready for the job of Interior secretary, but she also acknowledged the contentiousness surrounding his nomination. "For whatever reason you seem to have outside groups working harder against your nomination than most anyone else we've had in front of us," she said.