Interior Secretary David Bernhardt — who is being investigated for potential conflicts of interest with the oil and gas industry, department officials confirmed Monday — recused himself from a Wyoming sage grouse meeting with a Casper oilman in late 2017 due to the man’s ties to the Independent Petroleum Association of America, according to documents obtained by the Western Values Project.
The environmental group argues that Bernhardt’s decision to remove himself from that meeting was out of the ordinary for the then second highest official in the Interior – the department that oversees the Bureau of Land Management and oil and gas development in Wyoming.
Faith Vander Voort, a spokeswoman for the Interior, confirmed that secretary did not take the meeting because the trade group is on Bernhardt’s “recusal list.” In response to recent allegations of conflicts of interest, Vander Voort said the secretary operated ethically and in accordance with law.
Secretary David Bernhardt worked as an industry lobbyist both before and after serving in the Interior Department under the George W. Bush. He came on again with the Interior as part of the Trump administration’s transition team and has been quietly involved in major issues for Wyoming, like the overhaul of sage grouse management plans.
The U.S. Senate confirmed Bernhardt on Thursday to lead the Interior Department for the Trump administration following the ousting of former Secretary Ryan Zinke.
In response to seven recent complaints, including one from Rep. Ron Wyden, D-OR, the Interior’s internal watchdog confirmed in a Monday letter to Wyden that it has opened investigations into alleged conflicts of interest from Bernhard’s time as deputy to Zinke.
“We are continuing to gather pertinent information about the complaints and have opened an investigation to address them,” wrote Mary Kendall, deputy inspector general, in an April 15 letter. “We will conduct our review as expeditiously and thoroughly as practicable.”
Bernhardt has been under fire from environmental groups since his January appointment due to his lobbying career for the oil and gas sector. Environmentalists had also questioned Zinke’s ties to industry.
Vander Voort, spokeswoman for the Interior, said in a statement that a number of the issued raised in complaints had already been reviewed by the Department Ethics office.
“Secretary Bernhardt is in complete compliance with his ethics agreement and all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” she said.
Bernhardt’s critics, as part of their concern over industry influence at the Interior, say he has failed to disclose who he is meeting with and keep track of a schedule that can be reviewed by the public.
In an ongoing disagreement over verbiage, the nonpartisan Washington publication Roll Call has reported a murky division between a Google Doc of the secretary’s schedule that is confirmed to be utilized by his staff and the deputy’s schedule that is a matter of public record. The Interior confirmed the use of a Google document in maintaining the deputy’s schedule, but has also denied that the secretary’s schedule is overwritten by staff.
The Wyoming meeting that Bernhardt skipped was set up by Sen. John Barrasso, for Diemer True and others in a “high level Wyoming group” to speak with Bernhardt about captive breeding the sage grouse, according to the public schedule of Assistant Deputy Secretary Todd Willens, obtained by Western Values Project.
True was a chairman of the trade group from 2001 to 2003 and is currently its secretary, according to the IPAA website. His disclosure of that connection prompted the recusal.
For O’Neill of the Western Values Project, the sage grouse meeting recusal was curious. It is the only such record the group has found, and the secretary had a proactive role in sage grouse management during his time as deputy secretary, and had numerous meetings with energy companies and groups, including the IPAA, according to calendar items recently disclosed and reviewed by Roll Call.
O’Neill questioned Bernhardt’s decision to skip the meeting, not because it was inappropriate, but because it appeared to be a rare move on sage grouse issues. Bernhardt has also refuted any connection to IPAA.
In written response to questions from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, during his confirmation process the secretary wrote, “I have neither a personal or professional relationship with the IPAA or its employees.”
Bernhardt took an active, if subtle, role in the Interior’s revision process for sage grouse management in Western states, frequently interacting with Gov. Matt Mead’s office. His superior was less accessible to the governor, according to Star-Tribune reporting during Zinke’s tenure.
Wyoming has been the central battlefield in ongoing disagreements over how the bird should be overseen on federally managed land. The Trump administration, under Zinke, opened up Obama-era protections and made changes that have been protested robustly by environmental groups, who say industry now has too great of an influence over public lands.
One of the key bones of contention with Zinke’s approach to the grouse was comments he made in favor of captive breeding as a route to saving the species. The scientific community maintained that captive breeding was a last resort for declining populations and not a solution to the habitat erosion that’s damaged the sage grouse and other sage brush dependent species in the West.
Casper oil man, True, however has long worked for permission to try captive breeding in Wyoming, calling it one “arrow in the quiver” to protecting the bird from future declines. True sits on the Wyoming sage grouse management team.
Despite Zinke’s comments, captive breeding has remained a small state opportunity in Wyoming and not an aspect of the federal management plans for conserving the grouse’s habitat. Those plans were revised and reduced across the bird’s 11-state habitat.
Vander Voort, the department spokeswoman, noted in her statement on the investigation of conflicts of interest that Bernhardt had instituted a number of policies to “transform” the department’s “ethics program,” such as overseeing the hiring of numerous ethics professionals in the department and communicating a culture of ethical practice beyond the letter of the law.
She said the secretary is hopeful the investigator will “expeditiously complete a review of the facts associated with the questions raised by Democratic Members of Congress and Washington political organizations.”
Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the political party affiliation of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV.
Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner