Washington, DC November 20, 2019 – Foreign trips by Interior Department officials during the past year appear to violate legal restrictions, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Not only would the unauthorized funding have to be reimbursed but the responsible official could be prosecuted and barred from office.
Records obtained by PEER through the Freedom of Information Act document a political appointee approving more than $150,000 in travel expenditures from August 6, 2018, through June 28, 2019. These staff trips were to destinations such as Bangkok, Dar Es Salaam, Jakarta, London, and other destinations outside of North America.
The authorizations were issued by Andrea Travnicek, whose title was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. However, Ms. Travnicek lacked the legal authority to approve those trips. Under the relevant conservation funding statutes all “costs of travel outside the United States (except travel to Canada) …. [must be] approved directly by the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.” Yet, the Assistant Secretary, Robert Wallace, was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate until June 28th, after the travel had been approved.
Under directives from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, Travnicek had been “redelegated” the functions of the Assistant Secretary, but that redelegation language also specifically excluded “functions required by statute or regulation to be performed only by the Senate-confirmed official occupying the position.” That was clearly the case as the statute says the international travel has to be approved “directly” by the Assistant Secretary. In addition, authorizing the expenditure of funds contrary to law is a violation of the Antideficiency Act, whose violators are subject to criminal prosecution and may be barred from holding federal office.
“We are concerned about more than illegal foreign junkets but also the overall atmosphere of lawlessness within Interior,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins, who today filed a complaint with Interior’s Office of Inspector General asking for an accounting of funds and appropriate sanctions. “Congress placed a tight leash on high-cost international travel and Interior officials are not at liberty to ignore the legal requirements for it.”
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Ms. Travnicek’s travel snafu is the latest in a long line of Interior’s violations of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Nearly three years into the Trump Administration, Interior still has lower-level political appointees running most of its major bureaus, such as the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Interior has used a series of delegations to evade the constitutional “advice and consent” power of the U.S. Senate and Ms. Travnicek and other lower officials have been thrust into roles that required Senate confirmation.
“Interior is caught in its own tangled web of legal evasions,” added Jenkins, noting that non-Senate-confirmed appointees manage more than 450 million acres of national parks, wildlife refuges, monuments, and rangelands, covering almost one-sixth of the nation’s land area. “Since actions taken in violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act have no force or effect and may not later be ratified, many of Interior’s actions under Trump risk nullification.”