Ethics experts have questioned why Mr. Bernhardt was given approval to take part in the Endangered Species Act decisions on the delta smelt, since Westlands would be among the largest beneficiaries of the policy change. They have also pointed to the appearance of an ethical breach raised by Mr. Bernhardt’s involvement in the Interior Department’s push to expand the Shasta dam in Northern California, a project that would also directly benefit Westlands. The agency’s own scientists had advised against the expansion.
The emails may point to a reason Mr. Bernhardt has received permission to be involved: his close personal contact with an ethics officer. In other administrations, Republican and Democratic, aides to senior officials such as schedulers or assistants, sought the opinion of ethics lawyers, not the senior officials themselves.
“In any professional organization, if your boss comes to you and says, here’s the reason I should do this, it becomes very difficult to say no,” said Francis Iacobucci, who served as director of scheduling to Sally Jewell, an interior secretary in the Obama administration.
“That’s intimidating,” he said, adding, “there are layers for a reason.”
Lynn Scarlett, who served as deputy interior secretary in the George W. Bush administration, said that when ethics questions arose during her tenure, “certainly I would never signal what I want the answer to be.”
When Mr. Iacobucci was at Interior, he said he met with the ethics lawyers, including Mr. McDonnell, who would then vet the Ms. Jewell’s proposed meetings well in advance and reject any that violated ethics rules or created the appearance of ethical conflicts. Only then were meetings put on the secretary’s calendar.
“That is not a new process,” Mr. Iacobucci said. “It was learned from doing it this way in the agency for years.”
Four other former Interior Department officials described the exchanges between Mr. Bernhardt and the ethics lawyer who reports to him as “extraordinary,” “atypical” and “intimidation.”