David Bernhardt appeared before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for his confirmation hearing on May 18, 2017. Still image from Senate video feed

Senate confirms familiar figure to top position at Department of the Interior

A lawyer and former lobbyist who was at the center of some high-profile controversies during the Bush administration is going back to work at the Department of the Interior.

David Bernhardt was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of the Interior by a lop-sided vote of 53 to 43 on Monday. Only 5 Democrats and Independents, including one from his home state of Colorado, crossed the aisle to support his nomination.

“Finally, after months of waiting for confirmation in the Senate, I'm excited to welcome David Bernhardt back to the Department to serve as Interior's Deputy Secretary,” Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a press release after the vote.

Bernhardt is definitely no stranger to Interior. During the Bush years, 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, or policy adviser, to former Secretary Gale Norton.

As a result, Bernhardt found himself a witness to the Jack Abramoff scandal, which saw one of his predecessors, former Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, wind up in prison, the escalation of the Indian trust fund lawsuit, which resulted in tribes being punished for the late Elouise Cobell's court victories, as well the reversal of a sacred site legal opinion that later derailed the federal court nomination of another one of his predecessors, former Solicitor Bill Myers. He also was there for a series of politically-charged gaming and federal recognition disputes, most of which ended up going against tribal interests.

Yet through it all, Bernhardt managed to avoid any stain of scandal. During his confirmation hearing in May, he sought to portray himself as a watchdog for ethical issues at the department, regardless of that guilty plea from one of his former bosses.

"Mr. Bernhardt has proven to have the highest level of integrity and work ethic," Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana), who sits on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said on the Senate floor on Monday. "For heaven's sake, he is a Westerner."

But not everyone was convinced. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), another Westerner who also serves on Indian Affairs, was bothered by Bernhardt's past, including his work as a lobbyist for industries with business before Interior.

"“Mr. Bernhardt served at the highest levels of the Department of Interior, at a time when the Inspector General called it a 'culture of ethical failure,'" Cantwell, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which handled his nomination, said on the floor last week. She was referring to remarks from a former Interior official who rebuked Bernhardt's bosses for their repeated lapses.

"Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior," former Inspector General Earl E. Devaney told Congress more than a decade ago.

Bernhardt joins Zinke as the only two Senate-confirmed officials at Interior. While President Donald Trump has been slow to fill top posts -- including the leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- Democrats have managed to slow down the process, although only temporarily, since they lack sufficient votes to block most nominees.

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