David Bernhardt, President Donald Trump's nominee for Deputy Secretary of the Interior, is described as an avid hunter. Photo: U.S. DOI

Confirmation hearing scheduled for top Interior Department official

Secretary Ryan Zinke has been going at it alone at the Department of the Interior since March but he may soon have a new team member at his side.

David Bernhardt, a lawyer, lobbyist and former Bush administration official, has been nominated to serve as Deputy Secretary of the Interior. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he would hold the second highest-ranking position at the department.

"I am excited to announce the President and I have selected Dave Bernhardt to help me lead the Interior Department," Zinke said on April 28, which was President Donald Trump's 99th day in office.

During the Bush administration, Bernhardt held a number of key posts at Interior. He served as director of the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs and later as Solicitor, the department's top legal official. He also was a Counselor to former Secretary Gale Norton and a former Deputy Solicitor.

The jobs put Bernhardt in the middle of a series of high-profile controversies at the department. He was there for the Jack Abramoff scandal, which saw former Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles go to prison, the escalation of the Indian trust fund lawsuit, which resulted in tribes being punished for the late Elouise Cobell's court victories, the reversal of a sacred site legal opinion that later derailed the federal court nomination of former Solicitor Bill Myers, plus a number of politically-charged gaming and federal recognition disputes, most of which ended up going against tribal interests.

But it wasn't all bad for Indian Country -- on his second to last day as Solicitor in January 2009, Bernhardt authored a legal opinion that freed a politically-connected tribe from following gaming regulations that the Bush administration spent more than two years developing. His action contributed to protracted litigation that was barely resolved a year ago.

Bernhardt may be called to respond to some of these issues when he goes before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources next week. His confirmation hearing is set for May 18.

“I am gravely concerned about Mr. Bernhardt’s record of working on behalf of corporations at the expense of the environment, and his history at the Department of the Interior during years plagued by ethical scandals,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), the top Democrat on the committee, said in a press release. “The Committee must do its job in closely scrutinizing his record and any conflicts of interest that run contrary to protecting the public interest and upholding the stewardship responsibilities entrusted to the Department, on behalf of the American people.”

Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Notice:
Nomination hearing of Mr. David Bernhardt of Virginia to be Deputy Secretary of the Interior (May 18, 2017)

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