The Trump administration is so corrupt that its answer to ethics scandals is to replace disgraced officials with lobbyists and executives to oversee the industry they used to represent. Of course, calling corporate lobbyists a solution to corruption is like saying rotten eggs are the solution to that moldy smell in your kitchen — they are only going exacerbate an already bad situation.
After Tom Price was forced out as secretary of Health and Human Services for wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars on military and private flights, he was replaced by Alex Azar, a former executive at drug giant and insulin price-gouger Eli Lilly. After Scott Pruitt left Washington amid a blizzard of ethics scandals (including, bizarrely, ordering his secretary to try to procure a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel), Trump named coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as his replacement.
And now comes David Bernhardt, Trump’s nominee to follow the disgraced Ryan Zinke as the next secretary of Interior. Bernhardt served under Zinke as No. 2 at Interior, but previously was a lobbyist for oil and gas companies and a host of others. Startlingly even by the standards of Trump’s Washington, Bernhardt has so many conflicts of interest that he carries around a card listing his former clients to remind himself which companies he should not be dealing with.
It’s really not clear why Bernhardt bothers carrying around the conflicts card, because there’s no sign that it has curtailed him from carrying water for his former clients:
• He has authored a plan to make the coastal waters surrounding the United States open to oil drilling — inviting the creation of more disasters like the BP Deepwater Horizonnightmare of 2010, which spewed millions of barrels of oil into the seas with devastating, health, economic and environmental impacts.
• He required furloughed federal workers to come back to work — unpaid — to process new oil drilling leases.
• He swooped in to override a lengthy Interior Department scientific review of whether two pesticides were jeopardizing endangered species, overriding agency scientists and instead imposing an industry-favored analytic approach to conclude the pesticides do not pose a risk. The actual scientists found the pesticides jeopardized more than 1,000 endangered species. One of the pesticide makers is Dow Chemical (now Corteva), which donated $1 million to the Trump inauguration.
• He interfered in an endangered species determination to open millions of acres to oil drilling.
• He is working to strip away endangered species protections that have blocked California agribusiness’s ability to tap San Francisco Bay Delta waters. It just so happens that this was his priority when he worked for the same agribusiness interests as lawyer and lobbyist.
My organization, Public Citizen, filed an ethics complaint over this last matter because it plainly violates Trump’s ethics executive order, which prevents government officials for a period of two years from working on matters they lobbied on prior to coming into government. It was the second ethics complaint we filed on Bernhardt.
Oil industry executives literally are laughing out loud about the influence they have in the Trump administration thanks to people like Bernhardt. At a recent conference of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, the group’s CEO described the organization’s effort to defeat endangered species rules. “Well, the guy that actually headed up that group is now the No. 2 at Interior,” he said, referring to Bernhardt. “So that’s worked out well.” This remarkable exchange was reported by Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal radio show and Politico.
At his confirmation hearing, Bernhardt was shadowed by protesters dressed in swamp monster costumes. Their mockery called attention to a lobbyist turned would-be Cabinet secretary who shows every sign of continuing to serve his old clients rather than his public duties. Bernhardt was confirmed to the No. 2 post in Interior on a party-line vote. With the public spotlight on a record as shady as any in the Trump administration, the question now is whether any of Bernhardt’s Republican backers will break with him to defend our national lands and public health. It shouldn’t be a hard call.