By Jacob Holzman / CQ-Roll Call
WASHINGTON — The Interior Department has acknowledged that Secretary David Bernhardt’s staff intentionally left controversial meetings with representatives of fossil fuel, timber and water interests off his public calendar, citing “internal protocol” governing his schedules.
The department also confirmed that Bernhardt used a personal itinerary kept on a single Google document that was regularly overwritten by his scheduling staff and said he is still doing so as House Democrats probe whether the practice adheres to federal records laws.
Until now, the department had denied that any schedules were being overwritten. Bernhardt told lawmakers earlier this year the only calendar he used was on a document posted to the department’s website. He said he had “not personally maintained a calendar for years” and had “no intention of suddenly doing so now.”
Many of those calendar entries had little or no description of whom he was meeting and described numerous meetings merely as “internal” or “external.” Separate summaries of his daily schedule released this month show meetings were scheduled with representatives of industries the department regulates, including groups or companies Bernhardt represented as a lobbyist before he joined the Trump administration. While the summaries show that the meetings were scheduled, they don’t make clear whether all the scheduled meetings occurred.
In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Interior Department spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort described how Bernhardt’s staff prepared and maintained the new documents, what they call his “daily cards,” including the fact that the documents are reprints of previous drafts of a Google document that was regularly edited and updated by Bernhardt’s staff.
House Democrats have asserted that, by continually editing and deleting parts of a single Google document, the department could have run afoul of federal records laws. Interior says its legal team disagrees.
In most circumstances, agencies may destroy documents only under a schedule authorized by the National Archives and Records Administration, which is investigating Bernhardt’s recordkeeping practices after a referral by House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland.
One week before NARA started looking into the issue, Cummings asked an official from Interior’s public records office if there was a “calendar for the acting secretary that gets deleted at the end of each day.” The officer told the committee she was aware of the issue but provided no further details.
Hours after the hearing, Vander Voort told CQ Roll Call that Cummings had “mischaracterized” the department’s records practices, was “pushing” a “falsehood,” and was “purposefully ignoring the facts.” In an April 3 email to CQ Roll Call, she said plainly, “No, he did not keep his personal schedule within a Google document.”
In a recent interview, however, Vander Voort confirmed that the daily cards were created from a single Google document that was edited by staff regularly. But she said that “it’s false to say” he kept his “calendar” in a Google document, because the “cards” were a “reflection” of the calendars. She said Interior Department counsel and its records management staff have determined that the department is in compliance with federal records laws.
“It was reflected in a Google document. I will not say that his calendar was kept in a Google document. Because there’s no legal protocol that says how we label our calendar. (The cards are) a ‘reflection’ of the calendar,” Vander Voort said.
Cummings said late Monday: “I am growing increasingly concerned about Secretary Bernhardt’s compliance with the law and commitment to transparency. (House Natural Resources) Chairman Grijalva and I requested that the Department make four individuals available for interviews with the Oversight and Natural Resources Committees. We expect the Department to fully comply rather than delay in order to hide the truth.”
Natural Resources Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva told CQ Roll Call in a statement that records of Bernhardt’s daily activities are “property of the federal government.”
“Disguising those activities or destroying those records is against the law,” the Arizona Democrat said. “Doing all of this to cover up the fact that he is doing favors for his old lobbying clients is just doubling down on the unethical and potentially illegal conduct. The Secretary’s actions are already under investigation and those investigations must be seen through to the end. In the meantime, the Secretary should appear before Congress and explain himself.”
Also Monday, the Interior inspector general announced it had opened an investigation into Bernhardt’s “potential conflicts of interest and other violations,” following at least seven complaints from Democratic lawmakers and independent government watchdogs. The House Natural Resources Committee then announced a May 15 hearing on “Interior policies and ethical concerns,” including on “discrepancies in his publicly disclosed calendars that have still not been fully investigated.”
Vander Voort explained the process behind the calendars like this: Staff would send meeting request forms to parties seeking meetings with Bernhardt. The completed form would be reviewed by the department’s ethics staff. Bernhardt didn’t take every requested meeting, she said, and sometimes scheduled meetings would be bumped due to the typical fluid nature of a government official’s day-to-day.
Staff would then put meetings onto his public calendar using the meeting request forms. “Internal protocol” would dictate whether to disclose whom he was meeting with or to just describe a meeting as “external” or “internal,” she said.
“It was just a different style in putting things into the calendar,” Vander Voort said. “There is no legal protocol that dictates how we need to label things in a calendar. Just putting ‘external’ and ‘internal’ was just a way to label it. There’s really not a whole lot more to that. We are not required by law to label things a certain way on the schedule.”
The “daily card” was prepared closer to a given workday, usually the evening before. A member of the secretary’s staff would prepare a daily card to help him through the day’s schedule, and the staff would to look at the meeting requests to give Bernhardt accurate information about whom he would be seeing in meetings labeled “internal” or “external” on the card.
Bernhardt didn’t use this practice every day. On some days, staff would print out his public calendar along with any relevant meeting request forms.
The meeting request forms give “so much information versus the time on the calendar,” she said.
“Meeting requests are a huge part of the puzzle that makes up his calendar. It shares what they want to meet about, who asked for the meeting,” Vander Voort said. “It’s a puzzle piece that fits together, and when you have the public calendar and the daily card and the meeting request, if you put those things together, you could have a very good picture of what his day looks like.”
She said the secretary’s office is still using a daily card to supplement his public calendar, noting that Bernhardt has “not changed his administrative process.”
“We’re working to find the best practice,” she said.