Whitefish, MT - Just five days after the U.S. Senate confirmed former oil industry and agribusiness lobbyist David Bernhardt as Trump's Interior Secretary, The Western Values Project (WVP) today filed suit in Superior Court of the State of California for the County of Fresno against Bernhardt’s former client, Westlands Water District, for three unfulfilled public records requests under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) (see exhibits and correspondence here).
"This petition on behalf of the Western Values Project seeks a writ of mandate compelling Westlands Water District to make available for inspection public records in its possession, as required by the California Public Records Act (“PRA”), Gov’t Code §§6250-70. For almost two years after the Western Values Project submitted a number of public records requests, the Westlands Water District has refused to produce responsive public records, or to identify any basis for withholding such records," the lawsuit states.
WVP submitted the public records requests on May 4, 2017, to Westlands regarding communications with their former lobbyist-turned Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. "After nearly two years, not one of the requests has been fulfilled, a violation of California law," according to a press release from the group.
The group claimed Westlands Water District has "materially benefited" from Bernhardt’s work as a lobbyist and later as a public official. Secretary Bernhardt and Westlands have also been at the center of numerous investigation requests for potential civil and criminal violations of the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995 (LDA), said WVP.
Interior’s Office of the Inspector General yesterday confirmed with the New York Times that it has opened an investigation to address “a wide assortment of complainants alleging various conflicts of interest and other violations."
“Bernhardt didn’t just make millions in the private sector cashing in on his previous government experience, there are also examples of where he may have violated lobbying laws and Trump’s ethics pledge when he returned to the department,” said Chris Saeger, Executive Director of Western Values Project. “The fact that Bernhardt’s former client has been withholding public information raises suspicion, to say the least, and could provide valuable information for Bernhardt's newly opened investigation. Westlands should comply with the law and immediately release public documents related to Bernhardt and his former lobby firm.”
Westlands, a leading advocate of legislative and administrative attacks on the Endangered Species Act and promoter of increased pumping of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is the largest agricultural water district in the country, according to their website. The agency delivers water to growers on the drainage-impaired west side of the San Joaquin Valley through the Central Valley Project (CVP).
The District is a local-government entity formed in 1952 , making it subject to California’s Public Records Act.
"Records obtained by the New York Times indicate that Bernhardt may have lobbied on behalf of Westlands until at least some time in 2017 - after Bernhardt filed paperwork with the government officially deregistering as a lobbyis," the group said. "He attended at least one meeting with district representatives just three days before he was nominated to be deputy secretary by Trump. Within four months of his confirmation, it was reported that Bernhardt pushed for a decision that would be beneficial for the former client."
The National Archives and Records Administration recently confirmed that they sent a letter to Interior requesting that the department address Bernhardt’s missing calendars within 30 days, including a two-month period with 15 missing entries that coincide with Bernhardt’s work on the California water plan, according to WVP.
"Bernhardt held several meetings on the plan during that period and traveled to the state, but failed to disclose whom he had consulted with to help craft the final plan that eventually led to a presidential memorandum on Western water signed by Trump," WVP said.
WVP filed three requests (see below) seeking communications related to Bernhardt, his former lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, and other internal communications within the powerful water district.
"The original requests were submitted prior to the Senate’s consideration of Bernhardt for the deputy secretary post and sought expedited process so the public may understand Bernhardt’s role and activities with the Westlands Water District in order to better advise their elected representatives regarding his nomination," WVP explained.
CPRA 1: Bernhardt’s communication with WWD
CPRA 2: Lobby firm communication with WWD
CPRA 3: Internal WWD communication on Bernhardt
I have requested a comment on the lawsuit from the Westlands Water District via email. If and when they reply, I will post it here.
On April 5, Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva and Water, Oceans, & Wildlife Subcommittee Chair Rep. Jared Huffman sent a letter to Westlands seeking "all documents associated with David Bernhardt and his work relating to his former water district client, including his work to weaken Endangered Species Act protections and to pursue funding for the raising of Shasta Dam over the objections of the State of California.’"
“Serious questions have been raised regarding the potential conflicts between his [Bernhardt’s] work as a top official at the Department of the Interior (DOI) and his previous work as a lobbyist and lawyer with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck representing the Westlands Water District," Grijalva and Huffman wrote. "These potential conflicts have been described in national news reports and in numerous complaints filed with the Inspector General and Office of Government Ethics. It is essential that the Congress and the American people have a full and complete record of the relationship between Mr. Bernhardt and Westlands so these questions can be answered, and potential conflicts of interest can be addressed.”
On April 11, the U.S. Senate voted 56-41 to confirm Bernhardt as the Secretary of the Interior. Senators Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), as well as Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), joined Senate Republicans in voting for Bernhardt’s confirmation.
Bernhardt and his former lobbying firm have donated almost $1 million since 2013 to senators who will vote on his confirmation, according to a MapLight investigation: https://maplight.org/story/interior-nominee-and-his-lobbying-firm-have-donated-almost-1-million-to-senators/
"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," MapLight wrote. "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."
More information on the former lobbyist and his conflicts is available at www.davidbernhardt.org.