New records put Trump's interior chief under fresh scrutiny over casino row

Author: Emily Holden / Source: the Guardian

David Bernhardt succeeded Ryan Zinke as head of the interior department.

The new interior secretary, David Bernhardt, met with a lawyer for a Native American tribe that is linked to the political scandal haunting Bernhardt’s predecessor, according to internal agency records.

The meeting was disclosed in daily summary cards released by the agency but had not been recorded in earlier calendars. It raises fresh questions about Bernhardt’s potential conflicts of interest.

A grand jury is reportedly investigating Ryan Zinke’s role in blocking requests from two tribes to operate a casino in Connecticut. Zinke’s decisions followed a major lobbying campaign revealed by Politico.

Now the previously unreleased records show Bernhardt, a former lobbyist, met with a lawyer who may have been involved in the fight.

In early April 2018, Bernhardt sat down with Marc Kasowitz, a former lawyer for President Donald Trump whose firm was representing the Schaghticoke tribal nation. The Schaghticokes opposed the casino. They sued alongside MGM Resorts International, a competitor.

An interior department spokeswoman confirmed the meeting had happened but said it was about reinstating the tribe’s federal recognition. The agency provided a related letter from the tribe.

The Schaghticoke chief, Richard Velky, disputed that, though. He said he had met Kasowitz with another lawyer from his firm – the former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman – about an unrelated state-level lawsuit. But he employed a different law firm to handle the tribe’s federal status.

Kasowitz and others at Kasowitz Benson Torres did not respond to requests for comment.

Asked if Bernhardt was involved in the casino decision, the interior department spokeswoman, Faith Vander Voort, said: “Mr Bernhardt had absolutely nothing to do with it. Absolutely nothing.” She said the omission of the meeting between Bernhardt and Kasowitz from earlier calendars had been “a technical error”.

Interior’s internal watchdog is already reviewing other complaints that Bernhardt may be making decisions in favor of former clients.

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