Interior Nominee And His Lobbying Firm Have Donated Almost $1 Million To Senators

Andrew Perez | March 22, 2019

President Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. Interior Secretary and his former lobbying firm have donated almost $1 million to senators who will vote on his confirmation since 2013.

David Bernhardt, a partner at the law and lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, was confirmed as the Interior Department’s deputy secretary in 2017. He has served as the department’s acting secretary since former Interior chief Ryan Zinke resigned in December.

A MapLight review of campaign finance data found that Bernhardt, Brownstein Hyatt employees and the firm’s political action committee contributed more than $225,000 to members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee between 2013 and 2018. The panel will hold a hearing on his nomination next week.

The firm and its employees also donated more than $960,000 to current members of the Senate, who will cast the final vote on Bernhardt’s confirmation.

Colorado's senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner, were the top recipients of cash from Brownstein Hyatt, which has a major lobbying presence in Denver. The third-biggest haul went to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Bennet voted to confirm Bernhardt as deputy secretary but has announced he will oppose his nomination to lead the agency.


Throughout his time at the Interior Department, Bernhardt has faced criticism for his past law and lobbying work. He has reportedly sought to limit potential conflicts of interest by carrying around a card listing roughly two dozen former clients, which included oil and gas companies like Halliburton and Noble Energy.

The list, however, didn’t stop Bernhardt from allegedly violating an executive order by Trump requiring that administration officials avoid working on any issues that they had lobbied on within the past two years.

Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, recently filed an ethics complaint against Bernhardt, asserting that he had directed Interior Department officials to weaken Endangered Species Act protections for Chinook salmon and delta smelt, despite having pressed for changes to the act as a lobbyist for California’s Westlands Water District.

Last month, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called on the Interior Department’s inspector general to investigate whether Bernhardt had violated ethics rules by working on matters affecting the water district.

“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,” they wrote in a letter. “These concerns are heightened when they involve contentious matters on which he previously lobbied, received financial remuneration and that could result in a controversial outcome.”

This story was produced by MapLight and published in partnership with Fast Company.