It looks like the Department of the Interior will have to wait to have a permanent watchdog in place.
Mary Kendall, a deputy Interior inspector general who has held the top position on an acting basis for more than six years, was nominated to take on the job permanently this past June. She and other Interior and Department of Energy nominees appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in October.
But that seems to be as far as Kendall’s nomination will go in the Senate, at least for now.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee’s chairwoman, doesn’t support the acting IG’s nomination. The senator still has "unresolved questions" about Kendall’s independence from the Obama administration, according to a committee aide.
"Chairman Murkowski continued to have unresolved questions about Ms. Kendall’s independence as Interior IG and, given the Interior Department’s oversized role in the daily lives of Alaskans, was not comfortable supporting her nomination to what is tantamount to a lifetime appointment," said Robert Dillon, communications director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Dillon also said the committee has no plans at this time to consider additional nominees. Kendall was not included in a package of nominees that the Energy committee approved last month who appeared with the IG at the panel’s October hearing (Greenwire, Nov. 16).
Asked for a response to Dillon’s comments, a spokeswoman for the Interior IG office cited Kendall’s testimony before the panel in October.
"To paraphrase Ms. Kendall’s testimony before the committee, ‘As a career civil servant for over 29 years, I sincerely believe that public service is a public trust, requiring me, and my fellow public servants, to place loyalty to the Constitution, the law and ethical principles above private gain," said Nancy DiPaolo, the IG office spokeswoman.
She noted that Kendall added "whether confirmed or not, I will continue to do the very best job I can to lead this respected organization in its ongoing efforts to prevent and detect fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement in the Department of the Interior."
Republican lawmakers have alleged that Kendall has been too cozy with senior political figures at the department during her tenure as Interior’s watchdog.
Many have battled with her over the years, especially with her handling of an investigation into the administration’s Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That sparked a 2013 House Natural Resources Committee GOP staff report that found she had taken an "accommodating and cooperative approach" with the administration (E&ENews PM, Feb. 21, 2013).
GOP lawmakers have alleged that Kendall had a conflict of interest by participating in an advisory board that supported the drilling ban, a charge that the IG has denied (Greenwire, May 23, 2012). A probe of Kendall by her fellow inspectors general would later clear her of any wrongdoing in the case (Greenwire, June 12).
Republicans on Capitol Hill have also fought with Kendall over documents regarding Interior’s proposed stream protection rule, which she has been reluctant to divulge (Greenwire, Sept. 11, 2014).
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) took issue with Kendall’s approach in both cases. The senator, a member of the Senate energy panel, said inspectors general have to work with both their agency and Capitol Hill.
"I have concerns regarding Ms. Kendall," Cassidy said. "Her partiality to the department makes her a bad partner for Congress."
Another committee member said he was opposed to Kendall’s nomination and said President Obama should have picked someone else for the job.
"I’m opposed to the nomination. If the president wants somebody in there, he would probably have nominated somebody different," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.).
Both Cassidy and Barrasso, along with Murkowski as well as Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), all asked Kendall questions for the record stemming from the October hearing. The IG’s 43-page response shows the senators’ focus on the 2013 House Republican report, which helped raise questions about Kendall’s independence.
Those questions have led to lackluster support in the Senate for the IG, resulting in Kendall’s stalled nomination.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Kendall’s status as an acting IG made her job tougher. Nevertheless, Bishop has not been impressed with her tenure and said that there were "better options" than nominating Kendall for the job permanently.
"There are better options. There are better choices," Bishop said.
Referring to Kendall holding the job on an acting basis, Bishop said, "I realize that it makes it difficult to make really valid decisions, those that have some kind of force, but some of the things we have been getting are weird."
In the meantime, Interior is again left without a permanent watchdog. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, said the department needs someone confirmed in the inspector general job.
"I think it’s needed," Grijalva said. "Playing games with a position that in theory reports to Congress … is a mistake. By politicizing it, I think you weaken it."