Last week was a no good, very bad week for the Department of the Interior and its Stetson’d chief, Ryan Zinke.
It started with news outlets reporting that Interior’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, would be replaced by Suzanne Tufts, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tufts has no relevant investigative experience and seems to only be notable for shutting down inquiries into the redecoration of HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s office.
After a full two days of radio silence, the DOI refuted the reporting. “100 percent false information,” an Interior spokeswoman told the Washington Post. The timing of the apparent miscommunication seemed especially odd, as a concurrent report by Kendall concluded that Zinke and others had not followed the department’s travel policies in several instances. When the smoke cleared, Kendall was still the acting inspector general.
So what does the bumpy week at Interior tell us? Can the events be chalked up to disorganization? Or is something more worrisome afoot?
Perhaps a little of both, government watchdogs say.
“You don’t have to pay close attention to say that what happened last week is so outside the realm of what usually happens,” says Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of public policy for the nonpartisan watchdog Project on Government Oversight.
What went on for those two days? “I very much think they were trying to clean up a mess,” says Kate Kelly, director of public lands for the left-leaning Center for American Progress, who worked in high-level communications in the DOI during the Obama administration.
While it’s impossible to assign motive to last week’s upheaval, the fact that it happened—and in the same week that Kendall issued a report critical of Zinke—may have sent a chilling message to the inspector general, says Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The inspector general is a position that’s supposed to operate with complete independence, she says. “Something like this should not happen, at all.”
Among other things, that report found that Zinke had violated some of the department’s travel rules, or else that staff had excepted him from some rules. In another case, relatives who held a fundraiser for Zinke were allowed to accompany him on an official boat trip to California’s Channel Islands, but the relatives were called “stakeholders” so that they wouldn’t have to pay for the trip. The report also found that the department paid $25,000 for a security detail to accompany Zinke and his wife on their vacation to Turkey. Zinke told the inspector general that he did not request the protection. Watchdogs found that a thin excuse, however; upon hearing of the security detail, he never canceled his plans. “It doesn’t show good judgment in terms of exercising appropriate oversight of government expenditures,” says Canter.
Last week’s events bring up another issue.
Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last week lamented to the Post of the top inspector general position, “the job has been vacant... for almost a decade. That’s not good, because that’s not the way we run the country.” But that’s not true. In fact, the events of last week point to an emerging pattern of the Trump administration not filling vacant top positions—jobs so senior that they require Senate approval, claims the organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Nearly two years into the Trump administration, the DOI, for instance, has nearly as many of these vacant positions that must be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate (eight), as it has filled (nine). And there is currently no nominee for seven of those eight jobs, points out Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.
Instead, the administration is staffing these jobs with “acting” chiefs, who can be selected by the administration and who therefore don’t need Senate approval. Such fill-in roles are supposed to be temporary. That’s not happening, watchdogs say. “It is becoming clear that, except when unavoidable, such as Supreme Court vacancies, the Trump Administration is bypassing the bother of Senate confirmation,” PEER wrote this week in an op-ed.
The result of this tactic is that actions by the executive branch are less accountable to both Congress and the public, the group claims.
At Interior, for example, Karen Budd-Falen, a property-rights attorney for the Bundy family and other Sagebrush Rebels, was recently named deputy solicitor for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks—a position that does not require Senate confirmation. She was long rumored to be a Trump nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management, but given her views, it was unclear whether she could have been confirmed.
Budd-Falen will work for acting Solicitor Dan Jorjani. Solicitor is another president-appointed post, but as acting solicitor, Jorjani avoids the confirmation process. PEER noted that Jorjani issued the legal opinion earlier this year that dramatically weakened enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The change was criticized by a bipartisan group of officials from both parties.
Congress enacted a law in 1998 to keep an administration from dodging its ability to “advise and consent” on people placed in high positions. Under that act, actions taken by an official who’s later deemed to be in that job inappropriately can be disputed. “Consequently,” PEER wrote, “these acts of executive hubris may become an Achilles heel.”
As for the top man at Interior, the disarray doesn’t seem to have threatened Zinke’s security. That could change quickly, if any of several outstanding investigations involving him turn up still more problems. One investigation involves his business affairs in Montana.
Still, there’s little serious talk of Zinke feeling pressure to leave or quit. “He’s got the president’s support. He’s got industry backing him up. He’s had a free ride from the committee in terms of oversight. He’s got a very protective cocoon around him,” says Representative Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and the ranking minority member on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees affairs related to the nation’s public lands and waters.
But some things could change come November 6. If Democrats take the House, they would again take the reins of Grijalva’s committee, and with it the ability to exercise subpoena and investigative power. Of course, the administration wouldn’t change at the midterms. But, says Grijalva, “the rules of engagement change.”