Several experts who reviewed the documents offered a different interpretation. They pointed out that the documents appear to show Mr. Bernhardt meeting with, and communicating with, federal officials to advocate for policy matters on behalf of a paying client, which is the basic work of lobbying.
The action described by the documents “raises ethical questions,” said Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. “He obviously was engaged in some sort of federal lobbying activity on behalf of Westlands even after he de-registered as a lobbyist.”
Mr. Bernhardt’s activities, if they constituted lobbying, could violate federal laws requiring lobbyists to disclose their activities, according to four independent authorities on the rules.
The documents include several emails with Johnny Amaral and Thomas Birmingham, the two officials at Westlands who worked closely on federal lobbying matters with Mr. Bernhardt during the time he was a registered lobbyist.
They include an email dated December 2016 from John Watts, an aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who works on the state’s water-policy issues, to Mr. Bernhardt and Mr. Birmingham. The subject line is “Memo: Endangered Species Act consistency of California water language.” It addresses two issues, endangered species and water rights, on which Mr. Bernhard had lobbied for Westlands.
On Jan. 2, 2017, Mr. Bernhardt emailed Mr. Amaral and Mr. Birmingham with “a short draft letter” addressed to Representative David Valadao, Republican of California, “expressing appreciation” for the lawmaker’s successful efforts to include legislative language related to a water infrastructure bill on which Mr. Bernhardt had already officially lobbied, and thanking the representative for his work on another bill related to water policy in the Central Valley. The final letter sent by Westlands to Mr. Valadao contained several passages identical to those drafted by Mr. Bernhardt.
On Dec. 8, 2016, the water infrastructure bill passed the House and Mr. Bernhardt emailed Mr. Amaral expressing optimism that the bill would easily win in the Senate as well.