Feds clear Ex-Interior Sec. Bernhardt in probe of Westlands ties

Investigators found claims Sec. David Bernhardt evaded ethics rules and improperly influenced 2019 rules governing water flow to the Valley were “unsubstantiated.”

For the fourth time in five years, Federal officials cleared former U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt of allegations of misconduct and impropriety levied by Capitol Hill Democrats during his time running the department. 

Bernhardt, appointed to the Cabinet post by former President Donald Trump following a short stint as Deputy Interior Secretary, was long a target of House Democrats due to his previous role as an advocate for Westlands Water District, the nation’s largest agricultural water district.

The back story: Bernhardt’s prior role with Westlands prompted a bevy of investigation requests, largely originating from a trio of House Democrats – then-House Natural Resources Committee chair Raul Grijalva, Rep. Jared Huffman (a former advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council), and former Rep. TJ Cox, who was indicted in August by Federal prosecutors alleging numerous frauds.

  • The investigation report from the Interior Department’s Inspector General probed four key allegations:
    • Interior Department ethics officials failed to provide Bernhardt with adequate advice to avoid conflicts of interest regarding Westlands Water District as his department prepared new environmental rules for water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley via the Central Valley Project, known formally as Biological Opinions.
    • Bernhardt withheld “material information” regarding potential conflicts of interest from ethics officials while seeking to improperly influence them to provide specific advice to enable him to participate in the development of rules governing the Central Valley Project.
    • Bernhardt violated the Ethics Pledge and the Standards of Ethical Conduct “or engaged in conduct that was otherwise unlawful or improper” by seeking to participate in the development of environmental rules governing the Central Valley Project.
    • Bernhardt improperly weighed-in to ensure Westlands Water District received a conversion of its contract to permanent status with the Bureau of Reclamation for its Central Valley Project water in 2020.
  • Bernhardt has faced three other probes by the Inspector General. In 2019, they probed allegations of undue influence over U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s scientific processes. In 2021, investigators looked into claims of U.S. Park Police action regarding the clearing of Lafayette Park to allow President Trump to survey damage and access St. John’s Church. Last year, the OIG probed Bernhardt’s lobbying ties.
    • In all matters, Bernhardt was cleared of impropriety.

What’s in the report: The investigation report, released by the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General, stated simply that investigators could not substantiate any of the four claims.

  • Investigators found that evidence did not support claims of insufficient advice from DOI ethics officials or Bernhardt withholding material information regarding his interests.
  • They also found that Bernhardt’s involvement in the development of the 2019 Biological Opinions did not violate the Ethics Pledge or Standards of Ethical Conduct, as the issue was not triggered by either document.
  • Investigators concluded that there was “no evidence showing that Mr. Bernhardt’s actions were otherwise unlawful or improper” and that any “directions, guidance, or advice affecting CVP matters” made by Bernhardt were within his discretion as Secretary of the Interior.
  • Lastly, investigators concluded Bernhardt had no hand in Westlands’ efforts to secure a conversion to permanent contract for CVP water with the Bureau of Reclamation nor that the contract “lacked appropriate Federal oversight provisions.”

What they’re saying: “We did not substantiate any of the allegations regarding improper conduct by Mr. Bernhardt. We also concluded that the evidence did not support the complainants’ allegations regarding the DEO’s review of Mr. Bernhardt’s potential conflicts of interest,” the Inspector General’s report reads.

  • ““The Inspector General’s report issued today reflects what we have always known – that former Secretary Bernhardt has conducted himself with professionalism and integrity both in the private sector and while serving at the Department of the Interior.   The report completely vindicates Secretary Bernhardt.  The report confirms that the allegations against Secretary Bernhardt were meritless and that he fully complied with all his ethical and legal obligations from day one of his term of public service,” said Danny Onorato, Bernhardt’s attorney.
  • “I am completely unsurprised to read today’s OIG’s findings that are an exoneration from baseless allegations hurled at former Secretary David Bernhardt. Bernhardt’s conduct while at Interior was a model of ethical compliance. Bernhardt is one of the most law-abiding, ethically-sound people I know, and these continued reports show he has always followed the letter of the law. Unsubstantiated allegations may make a flashy headline at the moment, but they sure don’t look very smart in the history books. Those who spent years attacking his character owe him an apology,” said RBW Group’s Cole Rojewski, the former Interior Department Director of Congressional and Legislative Affairs during Bernhardt’s tenure.
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