WASHINGTON, DC, Jan. 22, 2019 – The U.S. Department of Interior has ordered employees in several bureaus to perform nonemergency work in potential violation of the law, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite the government shutdown, Interior staff are now being directed to process oil and gas drilling permits and prepare environmental analyses for expanded hunting in national wildlife refuges, among other tasks that fall outside the shutdown law’s exception for “cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
The complaint asks the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to immediately investigate the circumstances and sources of funding for Interior deploying staff to work on –
- Processing oil and gas permit applications;
- Preparing environmental reviews for offshore oil and gas leasing; and
- Rushing to complete environmental reviews of expanded hunting and fishing on hundreds of thousands of acres on more than sixty national wildlife refuges, as well as staff to handle current hunting programs on 38 refuges.
“Interior appears to be gaming the system to circumvent the shutdown,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that in some instances affected staff are told that they are being paid with carryover funds from the prior fiscal year. “These Interior agencies have never previously reported budget surpluses, especially excesses large enough to last well into the second quarter of the current fiscal year.”
While these employees have been directed to return to work and reportedly are being paid, by contrast, most of their fellow staff, whose work may be just as vital or more so, are furloughed and not allowed to work, and while still other “excepted” staff working on essential tasks must keep working with no pay.
These actions are taking place at the behest of Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, one of Interior’s few confirmed presidential appointees. Penalties for violating the Antideficiency Act, the law that enforces the shutdown during a lapse of appropriations, include criminal prosecution or removal from office.
“We are asking GAO to determine whether these staff re-calls represent decisions by Mr. Bernhardt to cater to the desires of certain special interests in violation of the letter and intent of the Antideficiency Act,” added Ruch, noting that Interior’s Office of Inspector General is closed, and Interior is not accepting Freedom of Information Act requests during the shutdown. “At this moment, GAO is the only official watchdog left in town.”