Trump’s Interior Secretary Didn’t Violate Ethics Rules, Watchdog Finds

WASHINGTON — The inspector general for the Interior Department said on Thursday it had found no evidence that the former secretary, David Bernhardt, violated federal ethics or conflict-of-interest rules when the department made decisions that affected one of his former clients, a California water district.

The Interior Department under Mr. Bernhardt made decisions that benefited Westlands Water District, which represents California farmers, including a deal to grant federal water rights in perpetuity to a large agricultural district. Before joining the Trump administration, Mr. Bernhardt spent 10 years as the group’s chief lobbyist.

In a report issued Thursday, investigators said evidence did not support allegations that Mr. Bernhardt withheld information, worked on issues that presented a conflict, or sought to help his former client.

“We also identified no evidence showing that Mr. Bernhardt’s actions were otherwise unlawful or improper,” the report found. To the extent that Mr. Bernhardt gave “directions, guidance or advice” regarding the California water decisions, “his actions involved policy decisions that were within Mr. Bernhardt’s official discretion,” it said.

Mr. Bernhardt declined to participate in interviews with investigators, the report said.

Danny Onoranto, an attorney representing Mr. Bernhardt, said in a statement that the inspector general’s report “completely vindicates” the former secretary.

“The report confirms that the allegations against Secretary Bernhardt were meritless and that he fully complied with all his ethical and legal obligations from Day One of his term of public service,” Mr. Onoranto said.

Mr. Bernhardt deregistered as a lobbyist for Westlands in November 2016 and joined the Trump administration as deputy secretary of Interior in August 2017 before becoming secretary two years later.

In May, the Interior Department’s inspector general also cleared Mr. Bernhardt of a related accusations that he had violated lobbying laws in the same case.

Cole Rojewski, who served as chief of staff at the Interior Department in the Trump administration, said the reports showed that the accusations against Mr. Bernhardt were “baseless” and unsubstantiated.

“David Bernhardt is one of the most law-abiding, ethically-sound people I know, and these continued reports show he has always followed the letter of the law,” Mr. Rojewski said in a statement. “Those who spent years attacking his character owe him an apology.”

Mr. Bernhardt’s critics said they were not surprised and also not satisfied with the findings, and maintained that the former secretary was cleared on technical points. The investigation found that because Mr. Bernhardt intervened on multiple water districts and not just Westlands, his actions did not violate rules that prevent federal appointees from working on “particular” matters involving former employers or clients.

“He’s a smart lawyer,” said Representative Jared Huffman, a California Democrat who has requested federal investigations of Mr. Bernhardt. “He knows how to engage where he has a patina of legal cover and how to keep himself out of trouble. It doesn’t mean that there’s not a foul smell to his involvement in these issues that so directly benefited his former client.”

In 2021 a federal judge declined to validate the water deal. Representatives for Westlands Water District could not be reached for comment, but the organization has in the past disputed allegations that it received special treatment.

“The suggestion that the permanent nature of the proposed Westlands repayment contract makes it an ‘unusually good deal’ is simply false,” the district wrote in a fact sheet about the deal in 2020.

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