Press release | March 26, 2019

Nominee to lead Interior Department may have misled Congress about previous lobbying activities

New evidence shows President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Interior, David Bernhardt, may have misled Congress when saying he was not involved in lobbying activities on behalf of an oligarch’s company.

Washington, D.C  A new Global Witness investigation warns that David Bernhardt – Trump’s heavily conflicted nominee for Interior Secretary – may have misled Congress in May 2017 when he claimed he did not lobby on behalf of Access Industries, a company owned by Soviet-born oligarch Leonard Blavatnik.

At the time, Bernhardt had been nominated as Deputy Secretary of Interior and was about to face his confirmation hearing. In a written testimony to Congress he claimed he had not engaged in “regulated lobbying activities” on behalf of Access Industries, despite his lobbying records previously indicating otherwise.

One week after oligarch Blavatnik’s $1 million Inaugural donation to Trump became public, Bernhardt’s lobbying records from six years prior were suddenly changed to remove his lobbying for Access Industries. This change came two days before Trump officially nominated Bernhardt to his post at Interior.

In a new investigation, Global Witness evidence suggests that Bernhardt may have engaged in lobbying activities for Access and misled Congress about these activities. (1)  

Lobbying reports and archived webpages for Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm – Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s (BHFS) – show he was the firm’s most expert lobbyist working on energy and natural resources – topics for which Access had hired BHFS. Bernhardt would also go on to head BHFS’ Energy, Environment, and Resource Strategies Department. (2)

Moreover, in 2012, BHFS had updated Bernhardt’s records to indicate that his lobbying for Access Industries had ended. Six years after he was first reported as an Access lobbyist – and right before his confirmation hearing – BHFS fully back-tracked and said Bernhardt had never actually lobbied at all.

“The timing of Bernhardt’s lobbying record change is incredibly suspect. In the midst of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election – and with a Soviet-born oligarch’s high-profile donation to the Trump inauguration – it’s not surprising that Bernhardt would want to distance himself from Blavatnik,” said Jonathan Gant from Global Witness.

“Bernhardt has questions to answer about his work for Blavatnik and whether or not he previously misled Congress about this lobbying work,” said Gant.

Blavatnik is a controversial figure in Washington. He co-owns Russian aluminum producer RUSAL with oligarchs Viktor Vekselberg and Oleg Deripaska; the company, Vekselberg, and Deripaska have been the subject of U.S. sanctions.

Both Vekselberg and Deripaska who are close to the Kremlin, were under intense scrutiny in the Mueller probe for their financial ties to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, respectively.

Access was also a top donor to Trump’s 2017 Inauguration. His $1 million gift was reportedly scrutinized by Mueller’s investigators, who questioned witnesses about “contributions coming from US citizens with ties to Russia.” (3)

Now Bernhardt is up for another confirmation hearing – this time as Secretary of Interior, following the resignation of scandal-plagued Ryan Zinke. On March 28, 2019 he is set to face the same committee – Senate Energy and Natural Resources – for his confirmation.

Senators should ask whether Bernhardt worked for Blavatnik – one of the world’s richest men – and why his lobbying records were changed to say he did not.

“It is just not credible that a powerful DC lobbying firm would repeatedly file wrong reports, or that someone with Bernhardt’s unmatched expertise did not work – including supporting others – on such an important account,” said Gant.

Asked for comment, an Access spokesperson said Blavatnik’s Inauguration payment was legal and his political donations aim only to “further a pro-business, pro-Israel agenda.” Neither Access, BHFS, nor Bernhardt responded to questions about whether Bernhardt did work for Access.

“Given the fact that the previous Secretary of Interior resigned after major ethics scandals, it’s important that Congress gets this next appointment right. Bernhardt’s conflicts of interest and the fact that he may have misled Congress about his work for Access Industries are red flags and must be probed at the hearing,” said Gant.

/ ENDS

Contacts

Notes to editor:

(1) Evidence gathered by Global Witness suggests that Bernhardt undertook “lobbying activities” for Access. This evidence does not show, however, that Bernhardt should have reported as a “lobbyist” for the company. Under U.S. law, a person must report as a lobbyist only if they spend considerable time – 20 percent – on lobbying activities for a client and contact multiple officials.

(2) For a full list of lobbying records and archived BHFS web pages showing the expertise of Bernhardt and other staffers working on BHFS' Access account, see Global Witness' full investigation

(3) ABC News, Special counsel probing flow of Russian-American money to Trump political funds, 26 September 2017; ABC News, Special counsel probing donations with foreign connections to Trump inauguration, 11 May 2018 .