IG investigating complaint against top BLM official

By Scott Streater | 09/02/2021 12:55 PM EST

Nada Culver, the Bureau of Land Management's deputy director for policy and programs, testifying on Capitol Hill this summer. Francis Chung/E&E News

The Interior Department’s inspector general is investigating whether the Bureau of Land Management’s current leader violated ethics rules in the bureau’s decision last spring to pause a series of public lands orders in Alaska, according to a nonprofit watchdog group that requested the inquiry.

OIG investigator Michael Smith notified Protect the Public’s Trust in an email that it had conducted a "review" of the group’s initial complaint, filed in June, and that as of July 28 "the OIG’s Special Investigations and Reviews Unit will be investigating the complaint."

Protect the Public’s Trust — whose director, Michael Chamberlain, is a former Trump administration official — requested Interior IG Mark Greenblatt initiate the investigation into whether Nada Culver, BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, was involved in the April decision to impose a two-year moratorium on five public lands orders signed by former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt proposing opening 28 million acres of federal lands to mining and oil and gas development (Greenwire, June 14).

If so, Protect the Public’s Trust suggested that Culver, who is also performing the duties of BLM director, may have had a conflict of interest because the National Audubon Society, where Culver once served as vice president of public lands and senior policy counsel, was among a coalition of groups that petitioned Bernhardt in October 2020 against opening the lands at issue to energy development.

About six weeks after Culver joined BLM this year, Interior announced the two-year delay in implementing Bernhardt’s orders while BLM worked "to correct defects associated with initial analysis" of the orders under the National Environmental Policy Act (Greenwire, April 15).

"The fact that Interior’s IG is dedicating some of their scarce resources to investigate Protect the Public’s Trust’s complaint speaks to the seriousness of the allegations as well as the underlying conduct by Ms. Culver," Chamberlain said in an emailed statement to E&E News.

"We look forward to the IG’s decision," he added.

A spokesperson for the inspector general’s office declined to comment, as did a spokesperson for Interior.

Protect the Public’s Trust became active earlier this year, and its leaders say it is nonpartisan (Greenwire, May 20).

But Chamberlain was a Trump-era communications official at the Education Department under former Secretary Betsy DeVos. He also led Nevada communications for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign (Greenwire, May 20).

The issues raised by the group in its original IG’s complaint also drew the attention of congressional Republicans.

Two senior House Republicans, in a letter sent last June to Culver and Heather Gottry, Interior’s designated agency ethics official, requested a list of ethics documents pertaining to Culver’s tenure at the National Audubon Society, as well as her earlier work as senior counsel and director of the Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center (E&E Daily, June 16).

Among the documents requested by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, was a copy of Culver’s "signed ethics pledge," as well as a "list of recusals" outlining specific issues she may have agreed to avoid while at BLM due to her past work with the National Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society.

Rebekah Hoshiko, a spokesperson for Westerman, said they did receive a copy of Culver’s ethics pledge, recusal list and ethics waivers, but characterized the documents they received as "meager."

"We’ve received nothing else as of yet," Hoshiko said in an email.