A Senate committee Thursday approved the hotly debated nomination of David Bernhardt to become secretary of the Department of Interior.
The Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved Bernhardt's nomination by a 14-6 vote. His nomination next will be considered by the full Senate.
Bernhardt, who grew up in Rifle, is currently acting secretary of the department and served as deputy secretary under Ryan Zinke, who left his job at the end of the year under a cloud of ethics concerns. Bernhardt, an attorney who previously has represented and lobbied for oil and gas, water and other industries, likewise faces ethics allegations by critics.
Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said before Thursday's vote, "After Ryan Zinke, an Interior secretary who was forced to resign for a self-generated ethical hurricane, every single senator should be interested in restoring honor and integrity to the office of the Interior secretary. Unfortunately, the Bernhardt nomination, where he has 27 disclosed conflicts, doesn't even come close."
Wyden said that with new issues continuing to be brought forward, Bernhardt's nomination shouldn't go forward until they are looked into.
But the committee's chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said the committee has had ample time to review allegations.
"I am aware of no substantiation of them whatsoever, and frankly I would be … stunned if they were to be substantiated," she said.
She said energetic and well-funded groups are working against Bernhardt's nomination, and there has been new media reporting of old allegations, but the Interior inspector general's office has told her staff there are no open investigations into him.
She also cited Bernhardt's experience, which also includes working as solicitor at Interior during the George W. Bush administration, and pointed to what she said is his familiarity with the issues and proven ability to lead the department.
She added, "He's from the West. I like that."
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who sits on the committee, joined other Republicans in voting for Bernhardt's confirmation. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who is not on the committee, has said he opposes Bernhardt becoming Interior secretary based on Bernhardt's actions so far during the Trump administration.
Two Democrats on the committee, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, voted for Bernhardt's confirmation, as did Angus King, an Independent from Maine.
Thursday's vote comes amid ongoing reporting by media outlets including the New York Times and Washington Post regarding ethical questions surrounding Bernhardt. On Thursday, a Times story said that a previously undisclosed invoice indicates Bernhardt continued to lobby for a major client, Westlands Water District in California, for months after he filed papers with the federal government ending his status as a lobbyist. It said he filed those papers in November 2016 but continued working with Westlands as late as April 2017, when President Trump nominated him for the deputy secretary job.
The Times quotes an Interior spokeswoman as saying the invoice had been labeled incorrectly, and Bernhardt didn't engage in lobbying after deregistering as a lobbyist but only engaged in various legal services in support of water district officials. The Times quoted ethics watchdogs who voiced concern about Bernhardt's actions.
Murkowski said at Thursday's committee meeting, "Just because it was in the New York Times this morning doesn't mean it was correct."
Manchin called Bernhardt "clearly qualified" to be secretary, saying he "knows the Interior Department inside and out." He said he has had discussions with Bernhardt on issues including the need to balance resource development needs and environmental protection on public lands, and to comply with ethics laws and regulations. He said he was voting for Bernhardt based on assurances Bernhardt gave, but plans to hold him and the Interior Department to the highest ethical standards.
"I surely will hold him … accountable for his actions," Manchin said.
Chris Saeger, executive director of the Montana-based Western Values Project, said in a news release that Gardner and other western senators voting Thursday "greased the wheels to push Bernhardt's controversial nomination forward before getting clear answers to critical questions regarding his serious conflicts of interests. There is still time for them to reverse this mistake by voting to reject Bernhardt on the floor of the Senate.
"Until that happens, they will have to live with being known as full-throated supporters of Trump's conflicted ex-lobbyist pick to run our nation's public lands."
U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, said in a prepared statement, "No one is more qualified or more deserving to be the next Secretary of the Interior than David Bernhardt. He is extremely principled and is a man of integrity. David Bernhardt is the leader the Department and the American people deserve."