Interior Department calendars of nominee differ from public descriptions
Although Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee in February that he didn’t keep calendars and the records of his daily schedule others kept for him were public, the Department recently published to its website hundreds of pages of documents that reveal new details about some meetings that were left off of previous versions of his calendars.
The House Natural Resources Committee requested “all calendars and schedules” of Bernhardt’s on Feb. 7, after saying the versions posted on the Interior Department’s website were missing important details and excluding meeting descriptions or topics for more than 100 hours of “official government time,” according to the committee’s letter.
Bernhardt responded to the committee by stating that he had “no legal obligation to personally maintain a calendar.”
He said “numerous people” who create calendar entries for him have made those entries public.
“To the extent Agency records are created through that process, they are appropriately maintained to fully comply with the Federal Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act,” he said in the letter.
Now, days before his confirmation vote to be the next Interior Secretary, the Interior Department released 439 pages of documents spanning from Sept. 2017 to Nov. 2018 with more information about Bernhardt’s daily schedule than previously released by the department.
Getting a complete picture of what the former Deputy, now Acting, and, if confirmed, the next Secretary of the Interior Department has been doing since he started in 2017 has been an ongoing battle for outside watchdog groups and Congress.
Interior said that the new documents released this week were not calendars, but “daily cards,” which are “created the evening before or sometimes early the morning of each workday.” The Interior Department said these daily cards are a “synopsis of the Acting Secretary’s calendar given to him as a reminder of his upcoming events” and are often “outdated by midday,” according to a letter and statement Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort provided to CNN.
A previous analysis by the House Natural Resources Committee and outside groups found that the versions of Bernhardt’s calendars published on the Interior Department’s website were missing meetings altogether. Multiple versions of his daily schedule had been created in Google Calendar, and the versions online were not complete, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
During a House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing on March 13, an Interior FOIA official acknowledged that she was aware of the issue that some items from Bernhardt’s calendars had been deleted.
When Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) asked Interior Deputy Chief FOIA officer Rachel Spector if she was aware of calendar entries being deleted, she said “I have some familiarity with the issue that you are raising and understand that the solicitor’s office in the Department is working with the records officer in the Department to determine what’s occurred there and whether it’s consistent.”
Potential conflicts of interest
Bernhardt is a former oil and gas lobbyist and has recused himself from certain dealings with his former clients for a period of time. During his confirmation hearing, Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee questioned Bernhardt’s priorities and conduct since joining the Interior Department, insinuating that his lobbying ties were influencing his policy decisions.
While Bernhardt signed an ethics agreement when he joined the department and said during his confirmation hearing that he has complied with all of his ethics requirements, Congressmen and watchdog groups were concerned by the lack of transparency in the initial calendars.
“The only reason to take all these steps to overwrite your actual calendar every day is if you are trying to conceal what you’re doing from the American people,” Center for Western Priorities Deputy Director Aaron Weiss told CNN. The Center for Western Priorities is a conservation group that has been critical of the Trump administration.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-NM) acknowledged that releasing the full, unredacted versions of Bernhardt’s daily calendars was a step toward being more transparent. Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned last year amid multiple ethics investigations, left meetings off of his calendars as well, CNN previously reported.
Grijalva said that while Interior is “notorious” for not responding to FOIA requests “of any kind,” he hoped their release of the new calendar information was a move towards greater transparency.
“I hope they’ve had an epiphany, that they understand that these requests, the requests the committee’s making, are not burdensome,” Grijalva told CNN. “I think they came to the realization that, if pressed on the issue, they would have to release them anyway.”
In a response to the committee’s requests, Bernhardt asked Grijalva to publicly disclose all of his meetings as well.
“Given your recognition of the acute need for transparency, I encourage you in your new leadership role to join me in adopting this disclosure procedure. Together, our leadership on this issue will provide a good example,” Bernhardt said in the letter to Grijalva.
When asked for comment from Interior in response to Grijalva’s comments, Interior asked if Grijalva had agreed to disclose his meetings like Bernhardt has.
“Has he committed to do so like the Acting Secretary has? I haven’t seen,” Vander Voort said.
In the 439 pages now available on Interior’s website of Bernhardt’s daily schedule, a cursory comparison reveals several discrepancies between the previously released calendars found on the same page of Interior’s website and the documents published this week. In some instances, meetings that included little detailed information in the older version now say who Bernhardt met with or the topic of an internal meeting.
In the previous versions of the calendars, there were a number of entries that excluded descriptive information and instead offered general terms like “external meeting,” “event” or “call time.”
In the new version of the calendars, some descriptions of those external meetings shed more light on who Bernhardt has met with during his time at the department.
When comparing April 2018 between the previously released version and the new version of the calendars, there are two instances where Bernhardt met with people who work with or for his previous clients that are listed on his ethics agreement as entities he has recused himself from.
Bernhardt signed an ethics agreement stating he would recuse himself from working with certain businesses, but he is still allowed to meet with people that work at those businesses.
On April 12, Bernhardt met with Lynne Hackedorn, the new calendar reveals. On the older version of his calendar, this event was listed as a “personal meeting.” Hackedorn was the Vice President of Government Affairs at Cobalt International Energy, a former Bernhardt client that is included on his ethics agreement. Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said the meeting was personal, and Hackedorn was no longer employed by Cobalt when she met with Bernhardt.
On April 17, the new calendar listed a meeting between Bernhardt and Ed Manning from 9:30-10:00 am. The previous version did not include this entry, because the meeting was cancelled, Vander Voort said. Manning is a lobbyist for KP Public Officials who has represented the Westlands Water District, also listed on Bernhardt’s ethics agreement.
On April 18, a meeting at 4 p.m. that was listed as an external meeting on the original calendar is revealed to be a meeting with the National Mining Association on the new version.
Some of the discrepancies between the two calendars give more context to internal meetings as well. On April 12, a meeting that was listed as “Briefing with BLM” on the original version of Bernhardt’s calendar is listed as “Sage Grouse Update” in the new version. Interior finalized a policy in March that opens up land previously protected as a habitat for the sage grouse bird to oil and gas drilling. The policy change outraged advocacy groups who have closely monitored the agency’s every move regarding the sage grouse, and Grijalva called it a “smash-and-grab job on our environment.”
On April 24, a meeting at 2 p.m. originally titled “Briefing with FWS,” meaning U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, an office within Interior, is titled “FWS Monsanto MOU” in the new version of the calendars. MOU stands for Memorandum of Understanding. Monsanto is a large and influential biotech company.
“There is no legal protocol that defines the way a public official must label events on their calendar, and the Department has taken great strides to publicly disclose all meetings held with individuals or parties other than government entities,” Vander Voort said in a statement.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to advance Bernhardt’s nomination on April 4, a procedural step, with a vote of 14-6. The Senate will vote on Bernhardt’s confirmation as soon as next week.