The Department of the Interior watchdog’s review of senior Obama administration officials using a government-owned vacation lodge on the cheap is expected to be released soon, according to Interior officials.
Vice President Joe Biden and 12 of his family members were among those high-profile figures who stayed at the lodge, which caused controversy when reported last year. The audit’s upcoming release could provide potential ammunition to the vice president’s political opponents as he debates whether to enter the 2016 presidential race.
His and other senior officials’ time at the Brinkerhoff Lodge in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, first reported by Time in October, sparked an official investigation (Greenwire, Oct. 29, 2014).
The audit is being led by Interior’s inspector general. In November, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall told the National Park Service to back off its own Brinkerhoff investigation because her office would take over the review. That probe would "include identifying what guests have used the Lodge without payment and for what purpose," according to a memo Kendall sent NPS Director Jon Jarvis (Greenwire, Nov. 13, 2014).
The review has remained open, at least until late August this year, according to documents obtained by Greenwire under the Freedom of Information Act.
In response to a FOIA request sent in November asking for documents related to the Brinkerhoff review, NPS said in an Aug. 31 letter that several documents were being withheld from release because they could hamper an open audit by the Office of the Inspector General.
"The information you have requested relates to an OIG audit case that is currently open," said the letter. "Releasing any of the materials you requested could reasonably be expected to interfere with those ongoing proceedings. A premature release of the information contained in the report could harm future enforcement proceedings."
Under the FOIA request, NPS did release eight pages of documents — a series of policy memos, some going back years, that deal with the Park Service’s VIP accommodations, including Brinkerhoff Lodge.
Those records were already released to Greenwire under a different FOIA request last year. That batch of documents also detailed which officials from Interior, NPS, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the White House, and other agencies had stayed at the Brinkerhoff Lodge in recent years (Greenwire, Dec. 15, 2014).
As news hit of government officials seemingly using the lodge for vacation, Republican lawmakers were up in arms.
"It is troubling that these officials would be allowed to take advantage of these public resources for their own personal gain, without any thought to the cost of the American taxpayer," Reps. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), now chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Now almost a year after it began, the Brinkerhoff review may be nearing completion.
The Interior IG sent a letter recently to NPS asking the Park Service to comment on its draft report detailing the use of the Brinkerhoff Lodge by high-profile Obama administration officials, a spokesman for the Interior IG office told Greenwire.
NPS is expected to share its comments with the watchdog about the draft report this week, and those comments will be incorporated into the report, which will be released to the public soon after, according to the IG spokesman.
Capitol Hill has been in touch with the Interior IG, as well.
A House Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman said the panel had been in communication with the Interior inspector general but couldn’t provide an update on the forthcoming report.
Campaign fodder against Biden?
The IG’s review could emerge during a sensitive time for Biden as he considers launching a presidential campaign.
Biden has wrestled in public with whether to join the race for the White House. He is currently enjoying great political popularity, but he has questioned whether he and his family have the energy to campaign after the death of his oldest son, Beau.
"And, and, I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there. I’m being completely honest. Nobody has a right, in my view, to seek that office unless they are willing to give it 110 percent of who they are," Biden said about running for president on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" last week.
If Biden decides to run, political opponents are bound to dig into his record, including his stay at the Brinkerhoff.
"Right now, the majority of the press is swooning over Joe Biden. The days, weeks, months after he announces he’s running, there’s going to be a harsh new reality for him. I hope he has some adults around him telling that things are going to change," said a veteran Democratic political operative.
The vice president’s use of the lodge could help fuel attacks against Biden’s everyman populism once he hits the campaign trail.
"A story like this, it keeps people looking for more. It’s a building block for people trying to find out if he’s really an average guy like he says he is. If it’s just this one story, so what? But if it’s more, that could be a problem," said the operative. "If this is the end of the story, it’s the end of the story. But if there’s a pattern, he has got problems."
Biden always intended to pay for his family’s stay at the Brinkerhoff, according to a spokeswoman for the vice president. Biden’s office reached out to Grand Teton National Park before his family’s trip to ask about renting the Brinkerhoff.
"The vice president agreed to pay to stay at the lodge," said the spokeswoman for the vice president.
Nevertheless, Biden’s office never received a bill from the Park Service. That matter was soon corrected, which was mentioned in the Time report last year.
"After the vice president’s visit, upon not receiving a bill, we reached back out to the park to request a bill. Upon receiving the bill, the vice president paid the full amount of $1,200, which was based on the FY14 per-diem cost for Teton County plus $10 per night for each additional guest," said the spokeswoman.
She added that Biden’s office hasn’t talked with the Interior Department since payment was made regarding the use of the lodge.
After all the hullabaloo with Biden and other high-profile officials staying at the Brinkerhoff, no one will be staying at the lodge in the near future.
April Slayton, an NPS spokeswoman, declined to answer questions about the forthcoming IG report since it hasn’t been made public yet but confirmed that the Brinkerhoff Lodge remains closed and has been throughout the summer.
"They are not accepting any reservations at this point for any time in the future, either," Slayton said.
The Brinkerhoff, built in 1946, is a four-bedroom log cabin located on the shore of Jackson Lake. High-level Washington, D.C., insiders, going back to Presidents Nixon and Kennedy, have visited it.