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Interior Nominee Will Recuse Himself From (Some) Matters Involving Central Arizona Project

President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Interior, David Bernhardt, has to recuse himself from some matters involving the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) — at least until later this year. The CAWCD runs the Central Arizona Project canal system.

In between stints at Interior, Bernhardt worked for the Washington, D.C., firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck (BHFS).

BHFS is currently the CAWCD’s federal lobbyist. Back in spring of 2017, Bernhardt was nominated to go to Interior before CAWCD interviewed the firm for a lobbying contract it eventually won.

According to documents obtained through a public-records request, Bernhardt had been part of BHFS’ initial proposal. The CAWCD said he was replaced on that proposal after being nominated as deputy secretary on April 28, 2017. BHFS’ contract with CAWCD began on May 25. Bernhardt was sworn in on Aug. 1. 

Jeff Gray, the legislative affairs manager for the agency, said Bernhardt never lobbied for them.

“We have not requested any meetings with him during his tenure as deputy secretary, or now as acting secretary,” Gray said. “We haven’t had any conversations with him during that time period.”

BHFS has done legal work in the past for the CAWCD. Bernhardt in particular was named in a 2014 letter regarding fees for environmental compliance work concerning the Navajo Generating Station.

In an email, a spokesperson at Interior said Bernhardt is recused from matters when the CAWCD is represented by his former firm. That recusal period lasts until Aug. 3, 2019. 

Bernhardt is not, however, required to recuse himself from Colorado River matters writ large, or other items in which the CAWCD is not represented by BHFS. 

CAWCD's most recent contract extension with the firm for lobbying services, according to records, expires May 31, 2019. The total cost of the extension is capped at $228,000 for one year of work, not including some expenses.

The Washington Post has reported extensively on Bernhardt’s current and past conflicts of interest. These will likely get further scrutiny during his confirmation hearings, which are yet to be scheduled.

Arizona’s Department of Water Resources declined to comment.

Bernhardt’s possible confirmation as secretary of Interior comes at a sensitive time for the Bureau of Reclamation, which is part of the DOI. Reclamation has started a federal process to craft a drought plan for the Colorado River, although that will only be needed in case a consensus plan among the states isn’t finalized.  

Bret Jaspers was previously the managing editor for news at WSKG in upstate New York. Before that, he was a producer at WYPR in Baltimore and at Wisconsin Public Radio.His stories have aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Here & Now, and also the BBC and Marketplace. Way back when, he started as an intern and fill-in producer at WNYC’s On the Media, and then helped out on The Brian Lehrer Show and Soundcheck.When he's not covering the news, he's probably running, reading, or eating. Jaspers is also a member of Actors' Equity Association, the union for professional stage actors.