Top Leader At Interior Dept. Pushes A Policy Favoring His Former Client

After his confirmation, Mr. Bernhardt signed the Trump administration’s ethics pledge. Four months later, in November 2017, Mr. Bernhardt’s public records show that he held four phone calls with Mr. Murillo, the Interior Department official with the legal authority to initiate the process to revise protections for the delta smelt and winter-run chinook salmon. Other people were on the calls, as well.

The outcome of those conversations was that Mr. Bernhardt told Mr. Murillo to begin the process of changing the protections for the fish and to finish as quickly as possible, according to three people familiar with the matter. In December, Mr. Murillo began that process.

Mr. Murillo, who retired from the Interior Department in November, declined to comment on the record.

Before phoning Mr. Murillo, Mr. Bernhardt said, he had received verbal clearance from an Interior Department ethics lawyer. Technically, the lawyer told Mr. Bernhardt, he had lobbied on a broad water bill — one with many provisions, not just smelt rollbacks. So even though he had specifically lobbied only on the provision targeting the smelt and salmon, he was within the ethics rules.

“They say to me, ‘It’s gigantic,’” Mr. Bernhardt said of the bill.

A senior ethics official at the Interior Department, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he did not believe Mr. Bernhardt had violated the Trump ethics pledge, or any other ethics rules or laws, because the lobbying was on the broader matter, the overall water bill. However, the official said that other ethics experts could reasonably arrive at a different conclusion.

Several government ethics specialists disagreed with the Interior Department’s interpretation. “That argument is a real reach,” said Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog group.

She said Mr. Bernhardt should have received the approval in writing. “If he didn’t receive it in writing, it’s still an open question of whether he violated the pledge, and worthy of an investigation,” by the agency’s Inspector General, she said.

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