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Bernhardt Would Be Another Disaster At Interior

Back in 2016, candidate Donald Trump said he opposed a Republican bill designed to grease the wholesale transfer of America’s public lands to states. “I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great,” he told Field & Stream, “and you don’t know what the state is going to do.”

It turned out that, on the contrary, Trump very much liked the idea. He got to work on it in his first month as president. And he named Ryan Zinke, a zealot for privatizing public land, as the head of the Interior Department. The remarkably corrupt Zinke had to resign. Trump now wants Zinke’s No. 2, David Bernhardt, to take over Interior and continue the mission.

With Bernhardt’s help, the administration radically shrunk two national monuments in Utah — Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Formerly an oil and mining lobbyist, Bernhardt also drafted the plan to open over 9 million acres of sage grouse habitat to oil, gas and mining. The sage grouse is a candidate for the endangered species list. And the companies would no longer have to pay into a habitat protection fund.

Here’s how the game works: First give the land to the states. When that happens, the bills for fire control and other land management go to state taxpayers. State officials then say: “We can’t afford that. We’d have to raise taxes.” So they sell the gorgeous Western scenery to the world’s superrich. Other acres go to oil and gas companies at bargain prices. These are the interests that had been funding the politicians all along.

“No trespassing” signs rapidly appear. And the American people — hikers, dog walkers, paddlers, hunters, anglers — lose their right to a natural heritage that used to be free.

Many Western politicians talk as though the federal government grabbed the land within their state borders. They have it backward. The federal government owned that land before their states were states. Of course, local needs should be taken into account in deciding how that land is used. Fortunately, the federal government provides for a good deal of community input.

Whattabout Barack Obama? Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, a Bernhardt fan, charged that Obama’s interior secretary Sally Jewell had worked for an oil company. Jewell did work as an oil engineer for three years. She then went to Rainier Bank, which she advised to steer clear of the oil and gas sector (good counsel at the time). Her big job, however, was chief operating officer of REI, seller of outdoors gear.

Outdoor recreation companies are avid promoters of protecting the environment, for obvious reasons. They are also an $887 billion-a-year industry employing 7.6 million Americans, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.

The Obama administration did designate some sensitive public land for industrial purposes but with greater restrictions on construction of pipelines and roads. Drilling during sage grouse mating season was banned.

To obscure his controversial history, Bernhardt has been playing the hunter’s best friend. He talks a lot about “considering” protections for big game species. He just announced he’d expand a Zinke-era order to protect migration corridors.

As we’ve learned, orders are not actions. In the year since the order, nearly 20 percent of the Interior Department leases to oil and gas have been within these corridors. In New Mexico, 82 percent of the leases threaten mule deer, elk and pronghorn migrations. The slashing of Bears Ears opens a premier elk hunting area to industrialization.

And don’t you love that picture of the bearded Washington, D.C., lobbyist out in the field in camo, landing a moose?

With Republicans holding a Senate majority, Bernhardt’s confirmation is all but guaranteed. Just don’t say you weren’t warned.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

Facing Protest, National Archives Backtracks On Records Purge

The National Archives is changing the way it decides what records to destroy after an outcry about proposed mass destruction of records at the Interior Department.

The change follows a campaign by writer Russ Kick whose website, AltGov 2, features government data and other researchers.

“This is a huge deal,” said Kick. “The process whereby agencies and NARA [National Archives and Records Administration] decide which records get destroyed is absolutely crucial.”

The Interior Department under disgraced Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed a massive purge of records about endangered animals, oil and gas leases, timber sales, dams and land purchases.

National Archives traditionally posted notices about schedules of documents that could be shredded, but researchers who wanted to learn more about what was proposed for deletion had to request the actual schedules. Now they’ll be able to see the schedules online and also to comment online.

“We are making this change as a result of clear, widespread interest from the public,” said Laurence Brewer, our country’s chief records officer.

The National Archives had previously defended its process for getting rid of records, saying it was standard and has been going on for decades.

Federal agencies ask to mark some records as temporary, meaning they will eventually be destroyed. Records that will be kept permanently are sent to the National Archives.

Kick said opposition to destroying Interior records could make other agencies more cautious about trying to delete records. He said the Department of Homeland Security recently withdrew a proposal to purge documents across the entire department.

Patrice McDermott, the director of Government Information Watch, said the move is a good one but at best only a quarter step in the right direction. McDermott said National Archives won’t post proposed changes as they are submitted but in batches and from different agencies at one time.

“NARA is making changes but is – at yet – failing to comprehensively rethink who its public is in terms of records management,” she said.

The Lobbying Swamp Flourishes In Trump’s Washington

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

It’s been more than two years since President Donald Trump, who rallied campaign supporters with calls to “drain the swamp” of lobbyists and their ilk, took office. But despite that campaign promise, Washington influence peddlers continue to move into and out of jobs in the federal government.

In his first 10 days in office, Trump signed an executive order that required all his political hires to sign a pledge. On its face, it’s straightforward and ironclad: When Trump officials leave government employment, they agree not to lobby the agencies they worked in for five years. They also can’t lobby anyone in the White House or political appointees across federal agencies for the duration of the Trump administration. And they can’t perform “lobbying activities,” or things that would help other lobbyists, including setting up meetings or providing background research. Violating the pledge exposes former officials to fines and extended or even permanent bans on lobbying.

But loopholes, some of them sizable, abound. At least 33 former Trump officials have found ways around the pledge. The most prominent is former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned in December after a series of ethics investigations. He announced Wednesday that he is joining a lobbying firm, Turnberry Solutions, which was started in 2017 by several former Trump campaign aides. Asked whether Zinke will register as a lobbyist, Turnberry partner Jason Osborne said, “He will if he has a client that he wants to lobby for.”

Among the 33 former officials, at least 18 have recently registered as lobbyists. The rest work at firms in jobs that closely resemble federal lobbying. Almost all work on issues they oversaw or helped shape when they were in government. (Nearly 2,600 Trump officials signed the ethics pledge in 2017, according to the Office of Government Ethics. Twenty-five appointees did not sign the pledge. We used staffing lists compiled for ProPublica’s Trump Town, our exhaustive database of current political appointees, and found at least 350 people who have left the Trump administration. There are other former Trump officials who lobby at the state or local level.)

As we’ve reported before, some former officials are tiptoeing around the rules by engaging in “shadow lobbying,” which typically entails functions such as “strategic consulting” that don’t require registering as a lobbyist. Others obtained special waivers allowing them to go back to lobbying. In a few cases, they avoided signing the pledge altogether. Legislation aimed at closing some of the loopholes is contained in the Democratic-led ethics reform package, HR 1, the “For the People Act,” which had its first hearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee last month. (The same bill was proposed in the previous session of Congress, and the sponsors cited ProPublica’s reporting.)

Increasingly, both lobbyists and the firms that hire them are taking advantage of a loophole unique to the Trump ethics pledge: A clause that allows former political appointees to lobby on “any agency process for rulemaking, adjudication or licensing” despite the five-year lobbying ban. “Rulemaking” includes deregulation, a Trump administration priority. “Rulemaking is mostly what agencies do, and that’s what most lobbyists do. So that’s a pretty big carve-out,” said Virginia Canter, a former Obama administration ethics attorney who now works for the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Companies have taken notice.

(n) “Lobbying activities” has the same meaning as that term has in the Lobbying Disclosure Act, except that the term does not include communicating or appearing with regard to: a judicial proceeding; a criminal or civil law enforcement inquiry, investigation, or proceeding; or any agency process for rulemaking, adjudication, or licensing, as defined in and governed by the Administrative Procedure Act, as amended, 5 U.S.C. 551 et seq.

—An excerpt from the Trump ethics pledge

Of course, the lobbying-government revolving door isn’t new. The Obama administration hired dozens of previously registered lobbyists, and many officials returned to K Street firms afterward. The “Daschle loophole” is named after former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who sidestepped lobbying laws after he left the Senate by becoming a “policy adviser.”

Such influencers, more numerous than registered lobbyists, are allowed to operate because they don’t meet the legal threshold requiring them to list themselves as lobbyists. By law, registration is required if a person spends 20 percent or more of his or her time lobbying. That leaves a lot of leeway, said Paul Miller, president of the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics, an association for what it calls advocacy professionals. (“We’re just like you,” the organization’s website states.) Miller said he hears from people who do lobbying work, but haven’t registered, and “their phones are ringing off the hook.” Miller added, “It’s our No. 1 priority and concern.”

Ex-lobbyists play prominent roles in the Trump administration. The acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (and nominee for the permanent job), Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal industry lobbyist. David Bernhardt, the acting Interior Department secretary and nominee for the permanent position, was chair of a lobbying firm’s natural resources division.

By our count, at least 230 former and current registered lobbyists have worked in the Trump administration.

The departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, Interior, Justice and Treasury, as well as the Office of Management and Budget, did not respond to questions about their former employees-turned-lobbyists. The Department of Homeland Security directed questions to the White House, which declined to comment. The departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development noted that the ethics pledge doesn’t prohibit former Trump officials from lobbying Congress or career employees at the agency.

At least 18 former Trump officials have become registered lobbyists at the federal level. Typically, they have been careful to avoid violating the ethics pledge. That usually means they interact with representatives, senators and congressional staff, but not with appointees at federal agencies or the White House. Here are several who have gone into lobbying jobs in the past year:

Courtney Lawrence was a longtime aide for Reps. Bill Cassidy and Tom Price and a federal lobbyist for the insurance trade association America’s Health Insurance Plans before taking a job as assistant secretary for legislative affairs at Health and Human Services in March 2017, when Price briefly headed the agency. Lawrence stayed for 18 months before leaving in August 2018 for a director role at Cigna Corp., the health insurance conglomerate.

Lawrence registered as a lobbyist with Cigna in October. Her disclosure forms state that she was working on proposed changes to Medicare, the Affordable Care Act and prescription drug rebates. Federal lobbying disclosures show that Lawrence was one of several lobbyists to communicate with federal agencies and the White House, and not just members of Congress. In a statement, Cigna asserted that the lobbying disclosure — which was prepared by the company — is inaccurate. Cigna blamed a “formatting issue.” The statement said Lawrence “does not and will not lobby the Executive Branch.” The company said it would correct her lobbying disclosure form.

Jared Sawyer, a longtime Senate committee attorney and lobbyist, was deputy assistant secretary for financial institutions policy at the Treasury Department, overseeing two offices that regulate and monitor financial institutions and insurers. Sawyer was the lead policymaker on a set of proposed rule changes that would ensure that asset management and insurance firms don’t face the same regulations as banks.

In June, Sawyer left and took a job as a principal at Rich Feuer Anderson, a Washington lobbying firm catering to the financial services industry. He disclosed a host of clients, including BlackRock Capital, JPMorgan Chase and the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, all of which were seeking guidance on navigating the offices Sawyer oversaw in the Trump administration. Rich Feuer Anderson did not respond to requests for comment.

Jason Larrabee was the Department of the Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks before taking a lobbying job at Van Ness Feldman in May. In announcing Larrabee’s hiring, Van Ness Feldman noted his “deep understanding of our clients’ industries.” Larrabee has mostly lobbied congressional leaders on issues unique to the Interior Department, including National Park Service concessions, California water policy and Interior Department appropriations. In a statement, Van Ness Feldman said Larrabee signed the ethics pledge and is following its rules.

Larrabee worked on at least one project involving the agency he used to work for. Van Ness Feldman was hired last year to represent San Francisco-based ferry service company Hornblower Cruises and Events, which was seeking a new contract with the Interior Department to run passenger ferries to Alcatraz island. Congressional records show four lobbyists, including Larrabee, working for Hornblower. Larrabee is the only one with previous federal government work experience.

Larrabee “has not engaged in any DOI agency contacts” and “any such contacts were undertaken by other individuals” listed in lobbying disclosures, Van Ness Feldman said. In December, Hornblower was awarded a 15-year contract from Interior’s National Park Service to run the Alcatraz ferries.

(In response to ProPublica’s questions, Van Ness Feldman also said it would be correcting other lobbying disclosure reports the firm prepared, which it said incorrectly listed Larrabee and others as lobbying the Interior Department. “The firm takes ethical obligations seriously,” it said in its statement.)

Jonny Slemrod was the chief legislative aide for Mick Mulvaney at OMB. In November, he became a partner at Harbinger Strategies, a boutique lobbying firm founded by onetime aides to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Sen. Trent Lott. Slemrod told Politico at the time that he would register as a lobbyist, but three months later, he has yet to do so. At OMB, Slemrod helped secure congressional support for the Tax Reform and Jobs Act of 2017 and, according to his online biography, he was Mulvaney’s “lead liaison to Congress and negotiator on numerous policy issues including all appropriations and authorizing measures.” Harbinger lobbied on behalf of the nation’s largest banks during the negotiations on the tax law. Now, the firm employs a person who helped formulate the law, though, because of the lack of disclosure, it’s impossible to determine whether Slemrod is involved in such work. Harbinger did not respond to requests for comment.

Other former Trump officials-turned-registered lobbyists include Shannon McGahn, a former Treasury attorney (and the wife of former White House counsel Don McGahn), who is now the top lobbyist at the National Association of Realtors; Alex Campau, a White House health policy aide now running the health lobbying team at Cozen O’Connor; Downey Magallanes, who was deputy chief of staff for policy at Interior before running Capitol Hill lobbying for BP America; Matt Kellogg, who was Treasury’s deputy assistant secretary for banking and finance before taking a lobbying job at HSBC; Beth Zorc, who now works as head of public policy at Wells Fargo after a stint as principal deputy general counsel at Housing and Urban Development; and Hunter Hall, who served as the Commerce Department’s deputy director of advance before taking a job as deputy director of federal affairs at the Picard Group. Chris Shank, a senior adviser to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, left to join lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates then returned to the Defense Department in August 2018 as director of the Strategic Capabilities Office. (BP America said Magallanes is only lobbying the House and Senate, and HSBC said Kellogg is in compliance with lobbying rules and honoring the ethics pledge. Wells Fargo declined to comment. Cozen O’Connor, Picard Group and the Defense Department did not respond to requests for comment.)

An increasingly common tactic by ex-Trump officials is to create their own advisory and consulting firms that carefully skirt the line between lobbying and other services, like strategic or crisis communications, advocacy work or policy expertise. After leaving the Defense Department last year, Sally Donnelly and Tony DeMartino formed Pallas Advisors, described as a strategic advisory firm with “decades of experience at senior levels of the public and private sector” and providing “insight into how governments think and operate,” according to its website. Donnelly and DeMartino had previously worked together at a strategic advice firm that Donnelly used to own, SBD Advisors, with a client list that included Amazon Web Services, Bloomberg and Uber.

Donnelly and DeMartino have come under scrutiny. The tech giant Oracle is embroiled in a closely watched lawsuit with the Pentagon over a $10 billion cloud computing contract that experts expect Amazon to win. Oracle alleges, among other things, that the Defense Department allowed Donnelly and DeMartino to work on the project despite conflicts of interest. Oracle claims that DeMartino manipulated proposal requirements for Amazon’s benefit. (The Government Accountability Office looked into those claims and found that Donnelly played no significant part in the contract selection process and that DeMartino played no substantive role in the proposal requirements.)

At their new firm, Pallas, Donnelly and DeMartino don’t have to disclose their clients. A Pallas spokesman, attorney Michael Levy, said Donnelly and DeMartino signed the ethics pledge, are complying with all post-government restrictions and are not lobbying.

Scott Krause was executive secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, overseeing briefings and acting as a gatekeeper for the department’s senior leadership. He left after more than a year in the job, in May 2018, to start his own consulting firm, Krause Transformation. Its website says the firm “provides business transformation consulting, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) business development” and other services.

Krause told ProPublica that he signed the ethics pledge and doesn’t plan to lobby, adhering to a five-page memo he received from Homeland Security’s general counsel. But while he can’t talk to most of his former Homeland Security colleagues, he said he is allowed to offer “behind the scenes assistance with a company regarding DHS, which is why my company offers DHS expertise.”

“Behind the scenes” work is a gray area in government lobbying and legal circles, allowing former government officials to help clients navigate federal processes and relationships without violating conflict-of-interest laws. “There’s always been a question about what’s permitted as far as communication before the federal government and what’s permitted behind the scenes,” Canter said. When firms represent foreign interests or work on trade issues, Canter and others said, legal restrictions come into play. When they don’t, it’s usually fair game.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

 

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Quits Under White House Pressure

Ryan Zinke, the controversial Secretary of the Interior now facing multiple investigations into his official conduct and business deals, resigned on Saturday. While Trump announced the departure in a tweet that praised Zinke, his resignation came after weeks of quiet pressure from White House officials, who had given him until the end of the year to leave. Trump tweeted:

Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years. Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation.

Top among more than a dozen separate scandals that cost Zinke his job was a Justice Department referral by the Interior inspector general, concerning a real estate deal with the chairman of Halliburton, the giant oil services corporation, in his Montana hometown. 

Zinke aggressively pursued energy and mineral development in the West, which drew protest from environmental organizations and scrutiny of his conduct in office as well as his finances. He often complained that opposition to his pro-corporate and environmentally destructive policies was “politically motivated.” An active sportsman and Navy SEAL veteran, he liked to portray himself as an acolyte of Teddy Roosevelt, often seen as the first conservationist president.

Not surprisingly, environmental and conservation groups welcomed the departure of Zinke, whom they regard as a corrupt ideologue rather than a conservation advocate.

Said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities:

Ryan Zinke will go down as the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation’s history. By following President Trump’s marching orders to attack our public lands, Secretary Zinke oversaw an unprecedented and likely illegal attack on America’s national monuments.

“Surrounding himself with former lobbyists, it quickly became clear that Ryan Zinke was a pawn for the oil and gas industry. We can expect more of the same from Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, but without the laughable Teddy Roosevelt comparisons.

IMAGE: Ryan Zinke arrives for a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan, December 12, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo