This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. EDT.
The Interior Department inspector general offered a mixed assessment today on whether two senior officials misled Congress about the reason Bureau of Land Management leaders moved the agency’s headquarters out of Washington.
On one hand, the IG report concludes that Joe Balash, former assistant Interior secretary for land and minerals management, and William Perry Pendley, BLM’s de facto acting chief, accurately told Congress last year that the Washington office’s lease couldn’t be renewed.
But the watchdog also found both officials made "misleading" statements to Congress that "a new lease at 20 M Street was not possible" because it would cost more than $50 per rentable square foot.
The $50 per square foot was merely a loosely drawn estimate, the report says; Interior and BLM had never worked with the General Services Administration to conduct "market research to determine what the lease rate would be."
GSA had told Interior and BLM that it could use the $50-per-square-foot figure "as an estimate." But, the IG reports, "None of the evidence indicates that GSA officials told DOI personnel that the rate would definitely be higher than $50 per [square foot]. In the DOI’s and BLM’s statements, though, the GSA officials’ $50 per [square foot] approximation morphed into a statement that the rate would exceed that $50 rate."
Balash, in a July 2019 letter to House Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), and Pendley, during testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee in September 2019, both said renewing the lease in Washington "is not an option, as the new rate would exceed $50 per square foot."
But Interior and BLM had already made a decision "as early as 2016" — during the Obama administration — to move out of the M Street headquarters to either the Interior headquarters building or an additional "Federal facility" in the District of Columbia metro area, the report says.
Interior and BLM waited too long to work with GSA on the lease renewal process, the report says.
"The evidence showed that the BLM could not renew its lease at 20 M Street regardless of cost because neither it nor the Department engaged the GSA to initiate a new lease as required under Federal law," the report says. "Thus, the DOI and BLM officials’ statements to Congress that the lease could not be renewed because the rate would exceed $50 per [square foot] were misleading."
The report also notes "there was no evidence that Balash and Pendley were directly involved in drafting this portion of their statements."
It concludes that investigators "did not find evidence substantiating that DOI personnel inserted this language to intentionally mislead Congress or were otherwise acting in bad faith."
The IG sent a copy of the report to Interior chief of staff Todd Willens.
Willens, in a letter to Inspector General Mark Greenblatt dated yesterday, sidesteps the evidence of misleading statements to Congress. Instead, he writes that the report "confirms" that Balash and Pendley "told the truth in their written and oral testimonies before Congress in 2019. The findings put to rest any questions on this matter."
Politicians ‘weaponized’ BLM move
McCollum vowed in a statement today that "we will continue to conduct oversight of this administration’s actions."
"The Trump administration needs to communicate more effectively with Congress on decisions involving the use of taxpayer funds," she added.
But Willens lashed out at "the actions of Congress in relation to this investigation."
"On this subject matter, it is clear that some politicians weaponized the BLM’s relocation," he wrote to Greenblatt. "Their conduct is intimately tied to the creation of this report.
"Members of Congress are indeed entitled to their opinion and their motive, but they are not entitled to have merit when the facts do not support it."
In addition, Interior released a lengthy press release today again defending the controversial move of BLM’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo.
"Bottom line, the BLM relocation saves taxpayers millions of dollars, provides a lower cost of living for employees, brings decisionmakers closer to the lands they manage for the American people, and improves the level of service and operations of BLM," the Interior press release says.
The report comes three weeks after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt signed an order formally establishing the Robert F. Burford Bureau of Land Management Headquarters in Grand Junction (Greenwire, Aug. 10).
Interior and BLM have repeatedly declined to make public how many of the estimated 174 D.C.-based BLM staffers ordered to relocate actually agreed to go to Grand Junction or other state offices in the West. The best estimates, culled from statements to Congress by Bernhardt and to media outlets by Pendley are that close to two-thirds of Washington staff is no longer at the agency.
While BLM has worked to fill the vacant positions, the loss of such a large number of employees, including numerous senior staffers, has raised concerns about a "brain drain" on institutional knowledge.
Internal BLM documents obtained by E&E News last week showed that the move West has also resulted in changes to the organizational structure of at least one critical department (Greenwire, Aug. 28).
Critics of the move took note of the IG’s report.
"As this investigation rightfully concludes, the relocation of America’s largest public lands management bureau was based on false pretenses in order to achieve the Trump administration’s objectives of forcing career officials to quit and giving polluting fossil fuel corporations direct access to key officials," Jayson O’Neill, director of Western Values Project, said in a statement.
But Pendley this week authored an op-ed in The Denver Post boasting that the relocation to Grand Junction, as well as more than 200 other positions to BLM state offices in the West, has been "a huge success," supported by "almost universal bipartisan support."
The move West "was designed to delegate more responsibility to the field, maximize services to the American people, and increase the BLM’s presence closest to the resources it manages," he wrote.
Pendley also appeared to repeat what the IG’s report found misleading concerning Interior’s justification to Congress for the relocation, decrying the hundreds of positions "at the BLM’s M Street offices in exorbitantly priced office space with a soon-to-expire-lease near the Washington Nationals baseball stadium in the District of Columbia."
Reporter Michael Doyle contributed.