Tag Archives: David Bernhardt

The Boundary Waters Reversal Makes the Front Page of the New York Times

The story about the Boundary Waters reversal in the New York Times appears to be causing a stir. Hours after its online debut on Tuesday, the article had attracted hundreds of comments and was all over social media; yesterday, it appeared above the fold on the front page of the print edition. What struck me first about public reaction was that Times readers — a civic-minded and educated lot, on the whole — seem to have been unfamiliar with the basic elements of this story until now.

Most of the commenters’ heat appears to be focused on the Kalorama rental arrangement, which finds the daughter and son-in-law of the president renting a mansion from billionaire Chilean mining magnate Adronico Luksic Craig. It’s the most lurid part the story, and hints at some darker deal, or explicit quid pro quo: a mansion for a mine. I still think caution on that point is warranted.

Luksic was easily able to dismiss earlier reporting in Newsweek, HuffPo, and elsewhere on the rental, because it was based on the laziest form of reporting: writing up a (typically colorful) tweet by law professor and Bush administration ethics official Richard Painter about Luksic using “the Boundary Waters as his toilet”.

He stuck with this denial after the Times story appeared.

Luksic’s denial almost always turns on the issue whether he has ever “met” or “knows” the Trumps and Kushners. In the Times story, however, Luksic’s purchase of the Kalorama mansion is characterized in another way: as a soft opening bid, bringing Jared and Ivanka into an inappropriate, ethically compromised relationship from the moment they arrive in Washington. They are senior White House officials living under Luksic’s roof:

…several ethics experts said they would have cautioned Mr. Kushner and Ms. Trump against renting the home, given the Luksic family’s business before the administration.

“There may be nothing wrong,” said Arthur Andrew Lopez, a federal government ethics official for two decades who is now a professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. “But it doesn’t look good.”

It doesn’t really make the arrangement look any better to say they “decided to lease the home before knowing the landlord’s identity,”as Peter Mirijanian, a spokesman for Kushner lawyer Abbe Lowell tells the Times; and it’s worth noting that Mirijanian “did not directly respond to questions about whether they learned of that identity before signing the lease,” which would presumably have given Kushner and Trump an opportunity to review the matter with ethics officials. Besides, Rodrigo Terré, a Luksic agent, “said both sides were aware of each others’ identities before the rental deal was finalized. ‘We disclosed our name and the name of my boss,’ he said in a telephone interview.” That’s pretty unambiguous.

After asking out loud — again — whether there had been any formal ethics review of the leasing arrangement, I received this reply from one of the Times reporters:

There is additional new reporting here about the rental arrangement and other matters.

We learn, for example, that Charles and Seryl Kushner accompanied Jared and Ivanka on their tour of the Kalorama mansion. That family picture raises other questions, mainly about Charles Kushner’s longtime business associate George Gellert — who along with his son Andrew Gellert has extensive business connections in Chile. This angle seems worth exploring, especially since the White House nominated Andrew Gellert to be ambassador to Chile. (The nomination was quietly withdrawn, without explanation, in August of 2018. For more, see this post.)

Times reporting also appears to confirm that Antofagasta did, indeed, meet with the White House in May of 2017. The emails I had obtained through FOIA only hinted at the possibility of a meeting: “this same group [from Antofagasta] may also have a meeting at the White House,” wrote Interior’s Karen Hawbecker on April 28th.

A key meeting occurred in early May, when Antofagasta’s chief executive, along with other executives and lobbyists, discussed the issue with the White House’s top adviser on domestic energy and the environment, Michael Catanzaro. The company said it wanted to reverse the Obama-era decisions, which it said were illegal and inflicted “undue damage.”

That meeting now appears in an update to the Twin Metals at Interior timeline. As I’ve pointed out in another post, Catanzaro is especially close to the current Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt. While at the White House, Catanzaro had a regular weekly call with Bernhardt. The two oil and gas lobbyists often had lunch together as well. This would be yet more evidence, if more were required, that the Chilean mining conglomerate owned by the Luksic family had unbridled access to the highest reaches of the administration, and these public officials were working on the mining company’s behalf.

The message from an early meeting, according to an attendee who spoke on condition of anonymity, was that officials should prepare for a change in direction.

Parse that carefully. It’s one of the most intriguing paragraphs of the entire story, and it calls into question the administration’s claim — which it is currently defending in the US District Court for the District of Columbia — that the Boundary Waters reversal was made merely to correct an error in Solicitor Tompkins’ 2016 M-Opinion.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

Bernhardt, Biodiversity, and the Boundary Waters

At a hearing yesterday of the House Appropriations Committee, Representative Betty McCollum asked newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt —again — for documents regarding the decisions and actions taken on the Boundary Waters. Bernhardt was politely evasive, but made it clear that Interior is more likely to comply with the mining company’s plans than with Congressional demands.

The full exchange is cued up here:

A few notes.

We should take a moment to appreciate that Representative McCollum used some of her time to talk about the recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). This global assessment brought alarming news. McCollum started by asking whether it was being taken seriously at Interior, and how Interior could possibly continue to advance Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda in light of the report’s findings:

The UN Report also stated that the health of the ecosystems that we and other species depend on is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, our livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide. Around one million plant and animal species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.

So, Mr. Secretary, like the Fourth National Climate Assessment, this information is very sobering, and I believe it’s a call for action. So with the release of this information will the Department of Interior take a pause in its approach to energy development, to reexamine the impacts of these operations on ecosystems, species, and habitats, to see if there are better approaches?

Without waiting for a reply, McCollum continued:

The report also states that the abundance of native species in most land — major land based habitats has declined by 20 percent. And so I want to know how the Department is going to work to sustain native plants on public lands, and …the last thing that I’ll mention that the report highlights is the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on nature. With those impacts projected to increase over the coming decades. So I believe, and I believe many Americans would agree with me, that we can’t continue a business as usual approach. So how’s the Department going to incorporate this science into your everyday operations and long range planning? In other words, what are you doing to make sure the United States is a leader, and not a contributor, in the eroding of the foundations of our economies, our livelihoods, and the health and quality of life not only here in America but worldwide?

These remarks set the tone and context for the whole hearing, and for the brief exchange over the Boundary Waters. “The UN Report is on a lot more than just on climate change,” McCollum reminds Bernhardt at the beginning of the clip I’ve included above, “it’s also about pollution, mining, and land use.”

Indeed, the IPBES report notes that mining has “increased dramatically” in recent decades, and that it has already had “significant negative impacts on biodiversity, emissions of highly toxic pollutants, water quality and water distribution, and human health.” It adds that mining has had “strong negative effects on soil, freshwater and marine water quality and the global atmosphere.” As currently practiced, mining even jeopardizes responsible stewardship, as it has frequently led to “indigenous peoples or local communities [being] expelled from or threatened upon their lands.” In light of all this, the report recommends, among other things, “guiding and limiting the expansion of unsustainable agriculture and mining” to protect water and wetlands, which are under more pressure from human activity than ever before.

A thoughtful approach, but Bernhardt’s response was not even remotely satisfactory. He made some noises about how much he respected and appreciated McCollum’s question, but he was careful not to commit to handing over the requested documents. He left himself lots of wiggle room, basically claiming deliberative process privilege. Given his refusal, it was somewhat gratifying to hear that one of the documents I obtained through FOIA — an email to David Bernhardt on October 3rd, 2017, about a briefing on the Boundary Waters — was helpful to McCollum; but it was also frustrating to watch Bernhardt stonewall a Congressional committee.

Like Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Bernhardt assured Representative McCollum in the most earnest tones he could muster that once the mining permit process is underway, he’ll be open to public comment. By then, of course, it will be way too late. “There’s lots of opportunity for comment, review. There’s no way we’re going to approve something that’s destructive to the Boundary Waters. But there are processes we go through to analyze that.” This would be reassuring were it not for the fact that those “processes to analyze” had already been set in place — with the finding by US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell that sulfide mining posed an “unacceptable risk” to the Boundary Waters; with the issuing of Solicitor Tompkins’ M-Opinion; and with the mineral withdrawal study in Superior National Forest — and Bernhardt, Perdue, and other Trump political appointees abruptly cancelled and reversed all of them.

Why? We don’t know. They refuse to say.

If you listen closely to Bernhardt, his true position becomes clear. “If the applicant” — namely, Antofagasta Plc — “were to go forward, there are lots of opportunities for comment and review.” He’s leaving all discretion to the mining company. He refuses to grapple with the fact that reversals of Obama era protections — the reinstatement of the mineral leases — were unlawful, as McCollum points out here.

We know from the documents we have that Interior basically followed the mining company’s lead, and worked closely and behind closed doors with mining company lobbyists, in making this unlawful reversal. What else is Bernhardt holding back from the public?

Update, 15 May 2019. At today’s hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Alan Lowenthal again pressed Bernhardt on the Boundary Waters leases, and asked about the Briefing Memo and the Withdrawal Options document identified in the email correspondence I obtained through FOIA.

At the end of last week, the Committee received thousands of pages in response to their request for documents. This document dump consisted mostly of duplicates and materials that had already been made public through FOIA, and some pages were filled with garbage characters — what Lowenthal called “jibberish.” The Briefing Memo and the Withdrawal Options documents were included, but fully redacted, as they are in the documents I received.

The whole exchange is here.

Bernhardt was non-committal and evasive, as before. But today he had an ace up his sleeve. Toward the end of the hearing, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it had renewed Antofagasta’s copper-nickel mining leases near the Boundary Waters. This is an important step forward for the Twin Metals project.

Read more about the Boundary Waters reversal here.

David Bernhardt’s Briefings on the Boundary Waters Reversal

bernhardttwinmetals4oct2017.pngIt appears the FOIA department of the Solicitor’s Office at the Department of Interior has gone quiet on me, and has made it a practice if not a policy no longer to reply to emails or return phone calls about the status of my outstanding FOIA request. I should not like to think that they are giving me the cold shoulder because I published the first two batches of documents they produced, or that they are deliberately withholding or delaying the release of more documents. But with each passing day it’s getting harder to avoid a conclusion along those lines.

While trying to figure out if I’ve constructively exhausted administrative remedies pursuant to 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(6)(C)(i), which would give me grounds for a legal complaint, I thought I would look at the calendar entries recently posted online by the Department of the Interior for David Bernhardt, and see what I could learn about the role he played in the Boundary Waters reversal.

Before his nomination to be Secretary of the Interior (which the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee just advanced), Bernhardt served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior under Ryan Zinke. Before that, he was the head of the energy, environment and resources division at the lobbying firm Brownstein, Hyatt, et al; he represented many oil, gas and mining companies, and it remains unclear whether, or to what extent, he has severed ties with former private sector clients.

Bernhardt has balked at the requirement that he keep an official calendar, which would at least allow the American public to see who he’s been meeting with. The closest we have are typed agendas or “daily cards,” which list appointments and calls. The agenda items offer little detail, rarely specifying the subject of a meeting. This looks like more than just laziness or negligence. Bernhardt seems to believe the rules do not or should not apply to him, and he appears to be contemptuous of administrative process, norms, and law.

Much the same can be said for the PDF of Bernhardt’s calendar entries the Department of Interior released. There was no attempt to fill or even call out gaps in the record. Pages and entries are out of chronological order, November mixed with September, 2017 with 2018. Adding to the confusion, the PDF is not searchable; it is simply an image of the daily cards. Fortunately, my friend Michael Miles was able to perform a little software magic, and — voila! — we now have a searchable version of the 439 pages of daily cards that Interior produced. It’s online here.

We knew before this that Bernhardt was scheduled to be briefed on the Twin Metals matter sometime in August of 2017. As the timeline indicates, on Sunday, August 6th, Associate Solicitor Karen Hawbecker forwarded a briefing paper to her colleague Jack Haugrud “about the Twin Metals litigation in preparation for a briefing with David Bernhardt.” This was probably some version of the one page briefing that Kathleen Benedetto had prepared for Ryan Zinke back in April of 2017, and which had been adapted and forwarded to the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile at around the same time, in preparation for meetings with Antofagasta’s CEO, Ivan Arriagada. Bernhardt’s briefing would have reflected the progress that the Solicitor’s office had made since that time on the effort to reverse Solicitor Tompkins’ 2016 M-Opinion, following Seth Waxman’s blueprint.

It’s difficult to say whether this August briefing ever took place. Bernhardt’s daily cards show a meeting with Kathleen Benedetto on August 28th, 2017; and Benedetto at the time was carrying the Twin Metals brief. So perhaps that’s it. The daily cards also help us establish a little context for Bernhardt’s August briefing. We can see from his calendar that Bernhardt was in constant and regular contact with Michael J. Catanzaro, who was Special Assistant to the President for Domestic Energy and Environmental Policy before leaving in April, 2018. Bernahrdt and Catanzaro have a weekly call; sometimes they have lunch together. No surprise, as the two men come from the same world of lobbying for oil, gas, and mining interests; but what’s interesting about their regular contact is that it establishes a clear line of communication between the White House, or the Executive Office of the President, where Catanzaro served, and the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.

The revolving door puts one powerful lobbyist in the White House and another at Interior, and the two of them get together regularly, no doubt to discuss a shared agenda.

About a week before Bernhardt met with Benedetto, on August 22nd, 2017, Catanzaro meets to discuss the “Minnesota Project” with Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani. Joining them to discuss the reversal is Stephen Vaden, an attorney from USDA. Two days after that, August 24th*, Bernhardt along with other high level Department of Interior officials hosts the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable, with the CEOs of 16 mining companies. I’m unable to determine who those 16 CEOs were, but minutes from the annual meeting of the Women’s Mining Coalition on September 1, 2017, tell us that Pershing Gold was among the invitees, and the focus of the roundtable was “how to remove barriers to critical minerals, concerted focus at high level to improve permitting conditions.” Was anyone there to talk about removing barriers to mine the Duluth Complex? The CEO of Twin Metals? Polymet? Antofagasta? Glencore? I’ll do a little more poking around to see if I can find out who the CEO attendees were, and if I can’t come up with anything, I suppose I’ll have to file yet another FOIA request.**

Among the documents already produced by Interior, the earliest reference I’ve found to the Twin Metals matter is a February 2, 2017 Information/Briefing Memorandum [page 4390] prepared by Kristin Ball, Acting Director of the Bureau of Land Management, for Katherine MacGregor, who at that time was Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management. (Michael Nedd’s February 7th, 2017 email has been superseded in this regard; and it makes sense that the initiative appears to have come from MacGregor, not from Nedd. The timeline now reflects MacGregor’s role as prime mover.) In her memo, Ball notes that in the Superior National Forest area proposed for withdrawal, there are deposits of “Copper, nickel, palladium, platinum, gold, and silver” and adds, “Deposits contain critical minerals, due to technological applications.” This early memo establishes a theme that will run through Bernhardt’s arrival at Interior and culminate in the December 19, 2017 release of a new list of critical minerals by the United States Geological Service. That comes just three days before the Jorjani M-Opinion is made public. As I noted in an earlier post, emails show political appointee Gary Lawkowski recommending the Office of the Solicitor spin its December 22nd release with talking points about critical minerals.

Bernhardt was next briefed on the Boundary Waters reversal on October 4, 2017. His daily cards show the meeting at 11AM on that day. It was timely. Just one day before, Bernhardt spoke with Representative Tom Emmer, the Minnesota Republican who, along with Rick Nolan and Arizona’s Paul Gosar, has been working steadily to open the Duluth Complex to mining. This phone call now appears on the Twin Metals timeline. What Emmer and Bernhardt discussed is not specified. Gareth Rees was in the meeting, but the 10:30AM call with Emmer does not appear on his calendar [page 192], which on that day starts at 1PM. Curious that he should have omitted or forgotten to note this call with a member of Congress and the Deputy Secretary.

In any case, Bernhardt comes off that call with Emmer on Tuesday and into his Wednesday briefing equipped with three background documents: the widely circulated one page briefing and scenarios papers prepared back in April, and a July 24 BLM paper on the withdrawal. Correspondence shows that Bernhardt asks to see the 1966 and 2004 leases, along with the M-Opinion prepared by Solicitor Tompkins. It’s clear from Karen Hawbecker’s response that the focus of the discussion at this juncture are the renewal terms in the 1966 leases. Hawbecker directs him to them: Section 5, page 8.

HawbeckertoBernhardt4Oct17

Why this focus? Section 5 will be critical to a legal argument Jorjani ultimately makes in his memo, which is that according to the 1966 leases, production — actually getting a mining operation up and running — is not a precondition for renewal: “the commencement of production is…not a condition precedent to the right to a renewal.” This is another argument Jorjani borrows from Antofagasta’s lawyer Seth Waxman; and for Waxman, reading a production requirement into the 1966 leases counts as one of the “overarching errors” in Solicitor Tompkin’s M-Opinion. “Section 5 instead creates a production incentive” (cf. Jorjani page 6). As Representative Alan Lowenthal pointed out in a congressional hearing back in March, this argument may be ingenious, but it flies directly in the face of a 1966 BLM press release specifying a production requirement for renewal.

Regardless, by autumn of 2017, David Bernhardt had been briefed on the Waxman-Jorjani legal strategy. He had coordinated with Catanzaro and the White House and with Republican political operatives. He had hosted mining company CEOs behind closed doors to discuss the disposition of America’s public lands. He was fully on board.

*Bernhardt’s daily cards date this roundtable August 23rd, 2017. But Katharine MacGregor’s calendar (page 24) shows the event on the 24th, and a walk through or rehearsal of the event on the 23rd. I am inclined to trust MacGregor’s calendar over Bernhardt’s sloppily compiled cards. It is entered correctly on another Bernhardt calendar for August, 2017. Why the discrepancy?

**UPDATE, September 5, 2019: Though I have not yet received a response to my April FOIA requests regarding the CEO Critical Minerals Roundtable, another request has turned up a list of attendees. Lydia Dennett’s excellent investigation of the CEO Roundtable for the Project on Government Oversight drew my attention to it. Here is the list of attendees, as of August 18, 2017:
CriticalMineralsRoundtable20190827

Read other posts about the Boundary Waters reversal here