House Democrats are raising concerns that expanding the Interior Department’s ability to transfer water infrastructure would create new conflicts of interest.
Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, proposed an amendment on Thursday to the Reclamation Title Transfer Act that would bar the government from transferring dams, canals and other water management infrastructure to Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt’s former clients.
“The Secretary and Deputy Secretary can’t give away the public’s infrastructure to those who recently signed their lobbying paychecks,” Huffman said.
Bernhardt is an attorney whose clients have included energy interests and local water projects. In 2012, he represented one of those clients – Westlands Water District – in a lawsuit against the Interior Department.
Bernhardt said in a statement to CNN that he has committed to avoiding conflicts of interest with his former clients.
“I take my ethics agreement seriously and Mr. Huffman is fully aware that I am currently recused from participating personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties where a former client is a party or my former law firm represents a party in a particular matter involving a specific party,” he said.
The act would streamline the process for the Interior Department to pass ownership of water infrastructure from its Bureau of Reclamation to those local water projects.
The current process requires Congress to sign off on each transfer – “a time consuming and costly process,” the Bureau of Reclamation told Congress last year.
Transferring ownership to local control would “enable local water managers to make their own decisions to improve water management at the local level, while allowing Reclamation to focus management efforts on projects with a greater federal nexus,” said Scott Cameron, an acting assistant secretary. It would also save the federal government in maintenance and other costs, the department has said.
Huffman said the law as written would allow for potential “blatant conflicts of interest,” because Bernhardt’s former clients “stand to gain with the passage of this bill by taking ownership of the public’s infrastructure.”
He pointed to other ethical questions at the agency – including Zinke’s links to a land deal involving energy giant Haliburton and Bernhardt’s work on water interests.
Bernhardt also served at the Interior Department under President George W. Bush, including as solicitor general and deputy chief of staff.
The bill passed the House late Thursday afternoon.