Politicization at Department of Interior

Politics, not science, drove some decisions at the Department of the Interior

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Over the course of the Bush administration, the Department of the Interior (DOI) has been hit with troubling — and repeated — reports of politically inappropriate activity at the agency. The litany of concerns prompted Earl Devaney, the department’s inspector general (IG), to claim that “short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.” In one controversial 2002 episode, political appointee Anne Klee helped negotiate the proposed purchase of mineral rights — estimated by the Minerals Management Service to be worth $68 million — from the powerful Collier family, which at one time owned 1.25 million acres of Florida land. According to IG Devaney, department officials including Klee were in constant conflict with career agency staff members and provided “incomplete” information in order to arrange a tentative sale price of $120 million, plus up to $350 million in tax breaks for the sellers; the deal eventually fell apart. In 2004, Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles was cleared of ethics violation charges, but in 2007, he pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the U.S. Senate about his connections with infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff, to whom he provided “advice and intervention on issues within DOI,” according to prosecutors; Griles was sentenced to ten months in prison. A second official from the department received two years probation and a fine for failing to report gifts from Abramoff while working as an overseer for the Northern Marina Islands, which retained Abramoff as a lobbyist. Also in 2007, the deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Julie MacDonald, admitted to leaking internal documents — in violation of federal regulations — about endangered species to pro-industry groups, including the Chevron Corporation and the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation. MacDonald became the subject of an IG investigation after an anonymous complaint surfaced charging that she “bullied, insulted, and harassed” professional staff at the Fish and Wildlife Service to make them alter their scientific findings to favor developers and industry. “A lot of that is true,” the IG report quoted Dale Hall, the Fish and Wildlife Service director, as saying. Although the report concluded MacDonald violated federal regulations, there was no finding of illegal activity. In May 2007, several scientists from inside and outside the department testified to Congress that appointed officials at Interior “knowingly used flawed science” and that “official manipulation of Endangered Species Act science has become pervasive.” A Fish and Wildlife Services spokesman acknowledged that "there were issues," but said the agency has "acted to curb the problem" and can now "vouch for the integrity of the process."

Follow-up:
Julie MacDonald resigned in May 2007 after the inspector general issued a report about her actions. The IG report led to the creation of a scientific code of ethics to ensure that the agency’s actions are based on science, not politics. The IG has also begun inquiries into the agency’s delay in putting polar bears on the endangered species list, and into the cases of eight endangered species that may have been impacted by MacDonald’s influence. In December 2008 the inspector general issued a report that MacDonald’s influence was wider than expected and stated that “her heavy-handedness has cast doubt on nearly every [Endangered Species Act] decision issued during her tenure.”

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