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He served as solicitor general under George W. Bush

A former energy lobbyist, Bernhardt has been accused of conflicts of interest

(CNN) —  

The Senate Monday confirmed controversial lawyer David Bernhardt as deputy secretary of the Interior – the number two executive in charge of managing natural resources. The vote passed 53-43.

“David Bernhardt is a native Coloradan from the Western slope who has a deep understanding of Western land issues,” Sen. Cory Gardner said in a statement Monday. “His command of public policy … will be an enormous asset to (Interior) Secretary (Ryan) Zinke.”

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who introduced the confirmation vote Monday, referred to Bernhardt’s new role as the “COO” of the Interior.

“He understands the management of federal lands … and the balance between conservation and development,” Murkowski said.

Bernhardt isn’t new to DOI. He served as solicitor general under President George W. Bush, as well as counselor and deputy chief of staff to then-Sec. Gale Norton and director of the department’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs. As solicitor, Bernhardt authored several controversial legal opinions, including one – later thrown out – that made it more difficult to designate endangered species, according to USA Today.

In 2011, Bernhardt left the department to lead the natural resources law division at the DC law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, which regularly represents California’s Westlands Water District, the largest water district in the US.

He returned to the DOI in November to lead the Trump transition team. On Monday, he became the 51st official confirmed under President Donald Trump – a number lower than the those of the President’s predecessors at this point. On July 24 of their first terms, President Barack Obama had 228 nominations confirmed, and President George W. Bush had 205.

Opposition to the nomination

Many environmental groups raised concerns about what they consider Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest when it comes to the Interior post. Over 150 environmental groups signed a letter to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources opposing Bernhardt’s nomination in May.

“After spending years lobbying for the oil and gas industry, big agribusiness and water profiteers, Mr. Bernhardt is laden with conflicts of interest that raise serious questions about his ability to act in the public interest,” the letter said.

The groups expressed concern about Bernhardt’s interest in the Mojave National Preserve and Mojave Trails National Monument, where the Cadiz project, an investment of Berhardt’s firm, is seeking to pump water. For the Cadiz project to proceed, it will require permits from the DOI.

Other groups have questioned the timeline of Bernhardt’s lobbying activities. The Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit watchdog group, filed a complaint Thursday asking the US Attorney for the District of Colombia to investigate Bernhardt for potential violation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which requires lobbyists to register with Congressional officials.

Although a report filed with congressional officials in January stated that Bernhardt terminated his lobbying work for Westlands on November 18, 2016, email and phone records from various sources reveal that Bernhardt continued to discuss policy matters with Westlands management after his supposed resignation, according to the Campaign for Accountability’s complaint. In February, Berhardt’s firm billed Westlands $582.09 worth of services itemized for “Westlands Trip-David Bernhardt.”

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the committee’s top Democrat, has consistently voiced her opposition to Bernhardt’s nomination for similar reasons.

“The appearance that Mr. Bernhardt was still lobbying on behalf of clients that do business with the department at the same time he wants to help lead validates some of the concerns we’ve been saying,” Cantwell said last week. “I remain concerned.”

But other lawmakers expressed support.

“It’s about time Secretary Zinke has a deputy we can all count on,” Montana Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, said Monday.

Reviewing national monuments

Bernhardt will serve as top deputy to Zinke, who is currently evaluating the status of more than 20 national monuments, which protect antiquities or things of archaeological importance in peril.

Trump issued an executive order April 26 requesting the review of national monuments larger than 100,000 acres established since 1996. Zinke is now determining whether the 27 monuments in question are “the smallest area compatible with the proper care and management of the objects to be protected,” and whether state and local authorities were provided enough input in the initial monument designation.

The secretary has already announced his recommendations for four of the monument. Zinke suggested the downsizing Utah’s Bears Ears in his interim report last month. In early July, he recommended “no changes” to two monuments: Idaho’s Craters of the Moon and Washington’s Hanford Reach National Monument, adding Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument to the list Friday.

Zinke is expected to submit his final recommendations by the end of August.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect the distinction between national monuments and parks.