Democratic watchdogs are decrying a recent vote in Washington, D.C. that they say protects Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke from accountability by denying full funding for the Department of Interior’s inspector general.
Meanwhile, Zinke visited Utah Tuesday afternoon for Pioneer Day celebrations in Salt Lake City, facing supporters and detractors there. His visit came just a day after news broke that the Interior Department ignored the benefits of public lands in their review of national monuments– a review that the Sierra Club alleges ultimately led to “the illegal elimination of Bears Ears National Monument and significant reductions in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.”
Zinke delivered a message to Utahns on the July 24 holiday from President Donald Trump, saying, “Today we remember the extraordinary pioneers who uprooted their lives and undertook an incredible leap of faith into the unknown.” But aside from the pioneers’ treck to the West in 1847, he was pegged about current issues such as a possible move of Bureau of Land Management headquarters from Washington, D.C. to a western state. (See releated story about Colorado’s wishes to host the headquartes, Page B7.)
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters Tuesay, “I’ve talked with [Zinke] about it on a number of occasions. They clearly have a desire to have it out here in the West closer to where their lands are, so they can get an up close and personal understanding of the public lands, and the impact it has for the nation,” said Herbert.
Afterward, the secretary declined to speak to the media about the BLM or the recent documents released from his office, which have raised questions on whether or not they fully considered the impact of tourism before shrinking Utah’s national monuments. Both the governor and the secretary mentioned the shrinking of those monuments, saying they were beneficial for land use.
Ashley Soitysiak, director of Utah Sierra Club said, “Secretary Zinke’s actions to sell out our public lands are so blatant they can no longer be papered over with pretty words. Since his initial efforts to eliminate Bears Ears National Monument and reduce Grand Staircase-Escalante, Zinke has sold out millions of acres of public lands in our state, even those near places like Capitol Reef National Park, to the dirty fuel industry—and more are on the auction block,” Soitysiak said in a press release. “Continuing to ignore the historic, natural and economic significance of public lands is both dangerous and reckless.”
Regarding the Interior Department funding bill, “House Republican majority voted down Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva’s (D-Ariz.) amendment to the DOI funding bill that sought to increase the DOI Office of Inspector General’s funding by $2.5 million,” officials from the group called Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee said. Grijalva said the vote “shows how stubbornly Republicans refuse to hold Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke or the rest of the Trump administration’s DOI appointees accountable for their multiple scandals, policy failures and embarrassing missteps.”
In addition to the funding increase, Grijalva’s amendment authorizes the hiring of five new auditors to address contracts and financial assistance, five investigators to focus on administrative issues, and up to six new investigators in field offices to allow OIG criminal investigators to focus on criminal misconduct.
“Secretary Zinke is already the most scandal-plagued Interior secretary in recent memory, and House Republicans just voted against holding him accountable,” Grijalva said last week. “They’re comfortable passing a trillion-dollar tax cut for the rich but won’t spend two and a half million dollars on a watchdog agency that protects the public and saves taxpayers money. Something is very wrong with this picture.”
Zinke is the subject of at least 14 formal government investigations, more than the last four Interior secretaries combined. The DOI Office of the Inspector General is handling the bulk of those efforts, with others taking place at the Office of Special Counsel and the Government Accountability Office. Current OIG funding and staffing levels have proven inadequate given OIG’s overwhelming workload of investigations and financial audits, the Democratic watchdogs alleged.
Increasing OIG’s funding would have a positive economic impact, as the office’s work generates an approximately 20-to-1 return to taxpayers. Even as DOI awarded approximately $10 billion in financial assistance and contracts in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the number of OIG audits dropped roughly 16 percent. Contracts and financial assistance are some of the highest risk areas in terms of the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse, the group stated.