Trump's Interior Pick Blasted Over Blocking of Pesticide Report

(Bloomberg) -- A top Senate Democrat accused President Donald Trump’s nominee for Interior Secretary of lying and “meddling” with a scientific inquiry on Thursday, amid reports that David Bernhardt intervened to block the release of an agency analysis of the threat two pesticides pose to endangered species.

“You asked to come to my office to tell me your ethics are unimpeachable, but the brand new documents I just saw make you sound like just another corrupt official,” Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, told Bernhardt at the start of his confirmation hearing. “Why would you come to my office to lie to me about your ethics?”

Bernhardt, currently the acting Interior secretary as well as the department’s Senate-confirmed No. 2 official, defended his approach, saying he was considering both the facts and the law when he received a Fish and Wildlife Service assessment that the pesticides malathion and chlorpyifos jeopardized more than 1,000 endangered species. Bernhardt steered the assessment to career agency lawyers for analysis, as the Interior Department considered imposing a higher standard for deciding when pesticides threaten endangered species. The New York Times reported on the maneuvering Wednesday.

These are among “the most difficult consultations on the planet,” Bernhardt said, measuring out a careful response to Wyden. “You can’t ignore the law and come up with a scheme,” Bernhardt said, insisting that the handling of the pesticide report had to fit both “the law and the facts.”

Wyden cut off Bernhardt’s answer. “You meddled with the science,” he said. “You inserted yourself into a scientific process.”

The exchange highlighted the challenges facing Bernhardt as he seeks Senate confirmation to formally lead the Interior Department, an $11 billion agency overseeing drilling, grazing and other activities on public land.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska who heads the energy committee evaluating Bernhardt, said she hoped to hold a panel vote on his nomination next week.

Bernhardt, who was narrowly confirmed as deputy interior secretary by a 53-43 vote in July 2017, has been been dogged by questions about potential ethical conflicts while steering policy decisions at the agency. He also faces scrutiny for his unorthodox approach to scheduling -- with planned appointments recorded in a Google document that is regularly overwritten with new information, shielding information from public view.

Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, accused Democrats of applying a “double standard” to Bernhardt, after previously confirming Interior officials with close ties to the recreation sector and experience representing energy-industry clients. Those connections were portrayed as “assets” for Interior officials during the Obama administration, even though they are being cast as disqualifying detriments now, Gardner said.

“The very qualities that make you a supremely qualified candidate to serve as secretary are being portrayed as strikes against you,” Gardner said. “Instead of being portrayed as a competent lawyer who represents clients zealously and ably, you are painted as compromised and in pockets of industry.”

Bernhardt has long had ties to the Interior Department, having also worked there under former President George W. Bush. In a later job at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, he represented oil companies and developers with business before the Interior Department. His client list included affiliates of Noble Energy Inc., a major Gulf of Mexico oil producer; Equinor ASA, the Norwegian company seeking to build a wind farm off the New York coast; and the oilfield services giant Halliburton Co.

Bernhardt stressed that he follows “an incredibly robust screening process” to steer clear of former clients with business before the Interior Department.

And Bernhardt said he has worked to improve an ethics program within the Interior Department, casting it as “sadly neglected for some time.” Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Bernhardt said he has hired 42 career professional ethics advisers.

“Public trust is a public responsibility, and maintaining an ethical culture is critical,” said Bernhardt, who became the acting Interior chief after former secretary Ryan Zinke left under fire in January. “I know how important and devastating it is when folks at the top act in an unethical manner.”

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