Interior Solicitor David Bernhardt in the spotlight

NEW HAVEN, Conn. – When U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified to Congress about his role in the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, National Public Radio reported 71 ”I don’t recall” variations in his testimony.

Interior Department Solicitor David Bernhardt could challenge Gonzales on memory lapses.

In 46 pages from a lengthy deposition taken by the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation April 10, Bernhardt gave 34 ”I don’t recall” variations.

The deposition was in a recent court filing in STN’s appeal of the BIA’s October 2005 decision to overturn its January 2004 final determination to recognize the tribe.

The tribe is taking testimony from Interior officials to support its allegation that the reversal resulted from due process violations, illegal political influence and unlawful interference by politicians and lobbyists.

When asked about a March 2004 meeting with members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation, Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf and then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Bernhardt’s memory differed from Norton’s.

During that meeting, Wolf threatened to go to the White House and have Norton fired if she didn’t reverse STN’s federal recognition, according to Norton’s own testimony earlier this year.

”To the best of my recollection [Wolf] didn’t issue a threat … My recollection was he said that he, you know, he thought it was awful and he thought that – he thought that he might tell the president it was awful,” Bernhardt said.

Sometimes Bernhardt could not recall if he had attended a meeting or who attended meetings. In one instance he could not recall who attended an important meeting to discuss the tribe’s marriage rates – a controversial issue used in part to overturn the tribe’s recognition – but he was certain James Cason was not there. Cason, now assistant secretary, was then the associate deputy secretary, who signed off on the tribe’s reversal decision.

Bernhardt was appointed as solicitor last October after serving as deputy solicitor since the tribe’s recognition was overturned Oct. 12, 2005.

Bernhardt and Cason are among the remaining political appointees brought into Interior during Norton’s tenure who all shared the common experience of having been advocates or lobbyists for big oil, gas, coal and mining corporations that operate on public lands.

Before joining Interior in 2001, Bernhardt worked at Norton’s Colorado law firm of Brownstein, Hyatt and Farber, where he lobbied Congress and federal administrative agencies on behalf of Delta Petroleum Corp., TIMET-Titanium Metals Corp., NL Industries (an international chemical company) and the Shaw Group (maker of piping for oil companies and power plants), according to a Mother Jones report, ”The Ungreening of America.”

Bernhardt also worked for Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., as point person for the federal water rights settlement with Colorado’s Ute Indian Tribe, the report said. Critics of the settlement said its true purpose was not to appease tribal nations, but to benefit developers.

Bernhardt was also a Bush administration point man for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 2001, he prepared congressional testimony on Arctic drilling that dismissed warnings from the government’s own scientists and relied on reports funded by BP, the report said.

More recently, the Center for Biological Diversity, www.biologicaldiversity.org, a nonprofit group that often works with tribal nations on conservation issues in the West, reported that Bernhardt was part of Interior’s Executive Resources Board, which gave Julie MacDonald, the ”disgraced and recently retired Deputy Secretary of Interior,” a cash award of $9,628 in 2005 for her work in 2004, according to a release. MacDonald resigned in May after Interior’s inspector general issued a scathing report exposing her bullying of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, doctoring scientific reports and passing sensitive information to industry lawyers and lobbyists. The award lacked the required documentation of what MacDonald did to deserve it.

Other Norton team members have resigned in the wake of the scandal surrounding former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including former Interior Deputy Secretary Steven Griles and former solicitor and Justice Department assistant attorney general for environmental issues, Sue Ellen Wooldridge.

Griles was charged with perjury in March for lying to Congress about his relationship with Abramoff.

Wooldridge resigned January 2007 ahead of an Associated Press report that she and Griles bought a $980,000 house with Donald R. Duncan, the top Washington lobbyist for ConocoPhillips, and that she later gave the company extra time to clean up air pollution at its refineries.

Wooldridge and Griles married a few days after his indictment, making it impossible for either spouse to testify against each other.

Both Griles and Wooldridge are named in court documents as having been involved in meetings about recognition, sometimes with Bernhardt, during the critical 2004 – ’05 period when Interior officials decided to overturn STN’s acknowledgement.

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Interior Solicitor David Bernhardt in the spotlight

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