Thursday, September 25, 2008

IG investigating coordination by BLM and enviro groups, congressman says

Noelle Straub, E&E Daily reporter

The Interior inspector general is investigating possible illegal coordination between lobbyists for environmental groups and federal officials of the National Landscape Conservation System, Rep. Rob Bishop said yesterday.

Interior officials informed his office about the investigation into the NLCS, which is a division of the Bureau of Land Management, the Utah Republican said in a statement.

E-mails and other documents show extensive coordination between top NLCS officials and environmental lobbyists, said Bishop, the top Republican on the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee.

The main groups involved appear to be the Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation, a House GOP aide said. At some point NLCS officials had weekly meetings with these and other groups, often at the Wilderness Society's office, to coordinate lobbying strategy and messaging, the aide said.

E-mails show that NLCS officials requested environmental groups to write budget language, the aide added. E-mails also talk about coordinating lobbying efforts, setting up NLCS events, sending out draft memorandums for each other to review and preparing for congressional hearing.

The federal and advocacy officials exchanged resumes and job announcements in their respective organizations and BLM, the aide said. Travel documents are still being collected and reviewed and will be part of the investigation, the aide added.

Federal law generally prohibits federal employees from using appropriated funds or their official positions to lobby Congress.

Kevin Mack, NLCS campaign director with the Wilderness Society, said he was unaware of the investigation. "I don't know what the investigation is about, have not been called by the IG, so I can't say anything more than that," Mack said.

Both his groups work on public lands issues and are in contact with many people related to their work, Mack added. "I don't know what 'there' is there."

NWF spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said the group has not been contacted by the IG's office.

Interior spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said the department had no comment at this time. An inspector general spokesman could not be reached by press time.

Bishop said the Interior Department should act quickly to halt any improper activities involving advocacy groups and the NLCS. He also called on employees involved in the investigation to step aside from their positions until the inspector general finishes his work.

"The department must insist that any employee involved in violations of the anti-lobbying law step aside until the inspector general or the Justice Department has reviewed his or her conduct," Bishop said. "Just as the employees of the royalty-in-kind program at MMS learned, we will not tolerate misconduct by public officials."

Bishop was referring to a sex, drugs and financial favors investigation of Minerals Management Service employees recently completed by the Interior inspector general, on which the full committee held a hearing yesterday (E&ENews PM, Sept. 18).

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt established NLCS during the Clinton administration to grant protections to ecologically and historically valuable lands controlled by BLM.

But Babbitt's designation did not codify the system, meaning a later Interior secretary could dissolve it. When the House approved a bill in April codifying it, Bishop complained the House Rules Committee blocked GOP amendments, including one by him that would have addressed the private property rights he said were threatened by what he called a "vague legislative entity."

No comments: