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Dems goes after the interior minister's nominee for pro-industry ties in confirmation hearing



Despite Senate's energy and natural resource chairman Lisa Murkowski, a republican from Alaska, who began the hearing by asking Bernhardt how he plans to deal with ethics and conflicts both for himself and the department, if confirmed, the democratic Senators at the committee questioned Bernhardt about his priorities and behaviors since joining the facility, and insisted that his lobbying relations influenced his political decisions at the institute.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) questioned Bernhardt about a decision he had made to block the release of a US report on fish and wildlife which detailed the harmful effects of three commonly used pesticides on endangered species. The New York Times first reported the decision.

Bernhardt defended his decision to prevent the report from being published.

"My impression it was, this is a really interesting draft, but it had no legal review," Bernhardt said.

Wyden questioned Bernhardt's involvement in an ethics agreement he made when he became a member of the Interior Ministry as Deputy Minister in 201

7. Bernhardt is a former lobbyist and lawyer for the oil industry. Before working at the Interior Ministry, he worked at the DC law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, who led their legal department of natural resources. The law firm regularly represents California's Westlands Water District, the largest water body in the United States.

"I think you are so contradictory that if you are confirmed, you have one of two choices. One must disqualify yourself from so many issues I do not know how to spend your day or two , you have to make decisions that either directly or indirectly benefit previous clients, regularly violating your ethical promise, "Wyden said during the hearing.

Sen. Catherine Cortez-Mastro (D-NV) questioned Bernhardt's decision to keep parts of the land management agency open during the 35-day federal government's interruption at the beginning of the year to continue issuing oil and gas permits and leases. A CNN survey showed that Interior issued 267 onshore drilling permits and 16 leases applied for by oil and gas companies during the interruption.

Bernhardt explained that he kept people working on these permits and leases by accessing another financing stream. Some agencies receive multi-year funding, and fee-space funding was available for immediate use, he said, while national parks were funded annually. He also said it was a security issue and he was trying to get people back to work.

"I decided during the interruption that we should put people back on work because I could guarantee they could get paid and I didn't know how long this would take," Bernhardt said. "I can tell I had employees who called our ethics office to see if they could sell their plasma, and so I decided to put those people to work as I could."

The Interior Ministry is one of the federal government's largest departments. It employs over 700,000 people and manages everything from national parks to 20% of the country's land. The Bureau of Land Management, the part of the interior that handles oil and gas permits and leases, has 9,000 employees. Only 1,530 BLM employees are exempted and required to work during a shutdown – 524 full-time and 1,006 on call.

"At each end, the Interior Ministry is actually shut down and the approval of oil and gas drilling permits is not a major government function," said Aaron Weiss, Deputy Director of the Western Priorities Center, a conservation group that tracked approval approval through record requests. "There is no reason why these permits could not have been waiting until the end, but (Bernhardt) wanted to get them out of the door anyway."

At the end of the hearing, Murkowski again asked Bernhardt about his ethical review. She asked if he had been cleared of the Heads of Government's Ethics for Appointment and asked if India's designated ethics official had ensured that Bernhardt complied with his ethical agreement. To both Bernhardt said, "That's right."

"It must be extremely difficult to sit in a committee, sit where you are, and to get it not only suggested but that you lied, said Murkowski.

" I certainly do not want to the Senator, "Bernhardt said in response.

Bernhardt's confirmation vote is expected to be set for the Senate in the coming weeks.


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