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Former energy lobbyist David Bernhardt testifies before a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on his nomination of to be Interior secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 28, 2019. Photo by Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Senate committee endorses Bernhardt to head Interior Department

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel voted Thursday to put a veteran former lobbyist in charge of the Interior Department, despite a last-minute round of intense debate on allegations that he was using his federal position to benefit former industry clients.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 14-6 to approve David Bernhardt’s appointment to oversee the country’s public lands and resources. Two Democrats and one independent joined Republicans in voting yes. The vote sends President Donald Trump’s nomination to an as yet unscheduled final vote by the full Senate.

Bernhardt represented oil and gas clients and dozens of other industries and interests at the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck lobbying firm until Trump picked him in April 2017 for what was Bernhardt’s second stint at the Interior Department, initially as deputy secretary.

While Bernhardt says he has complied with all ethics laws and codes, and Interior’s ethics office has sanctioned how he deals with former clients that have business before the agency, Democrats and environmental groups accuse him of using his position at Interior to shape regulations and legislation in favor of big agriculture, oil and gas interests, and other former clients.

Documents that surfaced Thursday showing invoices and communications as recently as 2017 among Bernhardt and his old lobbying firm, and one of Bernhardt’s main clients — a politically powerful California agricultural water district, Westlands — made the committee vote on his nomination the occasion for renewed debate on the allegations. The New York Times reported on the documents Thursday.

Westlands — one of the country’s largest agricultural water agencies, in the country’s richest agriculture state — has sought a series of breaks from Interior and other federal agencies, including favorable decisions on water contracts and for the ag water district’s projects.

Bernhardt was not at Thursday’s hearing. Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said Thursday, “these allegations are nearly two years old and there is nothing to them.”

Bernhardt did no lobbying for Westlands after he gave up his registration as a lobbyist to join Interior, Vander Voort said. She said a Westlands invoice that showed Bernhardt providing “federal lobbying” for the water agency in 2017 was actually to cover Bernhardt’s costs for meeting with Westlands officials, not lobbying, but was “inappropriately labeled by the billing department.”

Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, cited Bernhardt’s experience and expertise in defending him Thursday.

She linked the ethics allegations against him to unspecified, “pretty well-funded groups that are working very hard and very energetically against his nomination.”

The Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General said earlier this week it was reviewing documents provided by Bernhardt’s opponents on his work with Westlands. But it has not yet said whether it would launch a formal investigation.

Murkowski said no other government office has an open, full-scale investigation into Bernhardt underway. She called allegations that Bernhardt was working to shape federal water oversight in favor of Westlands old and unproven.

“I am aware of no substantiation of them whatsoever,” Murkowski said.

Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon renewed a plea from Democrats for the Senate to stop action on Bernhardt’s nomination at least until the Interior Department’s internal watchdog examines the allegations more closely.

Wyden cited the resignation of Bernhardt’s predecessor at Interior, Ryan Zinke, who gave notice in December amid what Wyden called “a self-generated ethical hurricane” over allegations of conflicts of interest.

Repeated claims now that Bernhardt is using his job to rush through permitting decisions for oil and gas companies and other breaks for former clients “make me feel very strongly we shouldn’t go forward” with Bernhardt’s nomination, he said.

“I’m the longest-serving member of this committee. I’ve been chair of this committee,” Wyden said. “I’ve moved plenty of Republicans through. We’ve never had a situation like this.”

Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico voted with Republicans in approving Bernhardt, as did independent Angus King of Maine.

Bernhardt at Interior has worked to further Trump’s goals of making business-friendly regulatory decisions and promoting oil and gas development on public lands, among other aims. Under Bernhardt, for example, the agency worked through the winter federal government shutdown to continue granting permits to oil and gas companies, even as it and other agencies scaled back other, non-emergency services to the public.

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