INTERIOR

A BLM oversight trip collapses, and investigation follows

This story was updated at 4:23 p.m. EDT.

This August, veteran congressional staffer Peter Kiefhaber faced a jam-packed week visiting a variety of Bureau of Land Management sites out West.

Then his trip screeched to a premature halt, under circumstances that are cloudy, consequential and currently the subject of an Office of Congressional Ethics investigation.

Kiefhaber and fellow House Appropriations Committee staffer Tyler Coe were abruptly yanked back to Washington, D.C., within hours of their trip's inauspicious start on the morning of Aug. 26.

"As it turns out, Messrs. Kiefhaber and Coe have been recalled to Washington tonight, so they will not be able to attend the rest of this week's planned tours," a BLM official in Nevada advised colleagues that afternoon in an email. "In fact they are currently returning to their hotel to prepare for a 4 pm flight."

The official, BLM Nevada State Office Deputy Chief of Communications Rudy Evenson, added that "prepared presentations or other products" could be emailed so the state office could "forward them on to our visitors."

The Interior Department says that it withdrew Kiefhaber from the trip and that Coe's departure was a House committee decision.

Evenson's email offered no reason for the cancellation of a four-day trip. It did not mention a contested encounter with a BLM political appointee nor foreshadow what was to come, including complaints filed against Kiefhaber, a broader staff travel freeze and bipartisan ire aimed at the Interior Department (Greenwire, Sept. 12).

But while many details remain murky and subject to conflicting interpretations, emails and schedules obtained by E&E News under the Freedom of Information Act shed more light on Kiefhaber's trip, BLM's planning and the collapse of a journey that began so routinely.

"We are looking forward to discussing the topics we have identified over the past few weeks, and I think we have set up a very informative schedule with our senior state leadership," Evenson advised in an Aug. 22 email.

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'A very informative schedule'

As an Appropriations Committee professional staff member, Kiefhaber plays a key backstage role in the crafting of Interior's annual funding bill. He's spent years honing the craft.

Between 2000 and 2012, Kiefhaber worked on the Senate Appropriations Committee; his boss was the wily West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, a grandmaster of the appropriations process.

Kiefhaber then worked for the firm Ricchetti Inc., lobbying on behalf of clients including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and Trust for the National Mall, before joining the House Appropriations Committee staff.

Coe, a 2017 Duke University graduate, joined the committee staff last February.

For their Aug. 26-29 Nevada trip, Kiefhaber and Coe were booked solid, starting with an 8 a.m. greeting Monday from BLM Nevada State Director Jon Raby in Reno and ending with a Thursday afternoon tour of the Phoenix mine more than 200 miles away.

In between, there were sessions planned on topics from geothermal energy to wildland firefighting. The congressional aides were to take a return flight to D.C. that Friday, according to their itinerary.

"Rudy, thanks to all of you for putting this together for Tyler and I," Kiefhaber wrote Evenson, the state BLM official. "We very much look forward to meeting you all next week."

Interior funded the House Appropriations aides' trip to Nevada and was made aware of their visit beforehand.

"Hi Rudy, Thanks for chatting with me. Please share the final itinerary when you have a moment," said David Murray in an email to Evenson, also on Aug. 22. Murray's email signature identifies him as working in the Office of Budget at Interior.

Evenson then emailed Kiefhaber's itinerary to Murray.

The two House staffers, though, never got past an initial hourlong briefing on the Nevada Wild Horse and Burro Program, scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. Monday.

The encounter

Kiefhaber and Coe were greeted by Amanda Kaster at the BLM office that Monday morning.

Kaster graduated in 2011 from Wilkes University and worked on then-Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke's congressional staff before joining him at Interior in 2017 as an adviser. She's now BLM's acting chief of staff.

Kaster's name was not mentioned in the itinerary, nor was she included in the trip planning email traffic obtained under FOIA, but Interior's chief of staff, Todd Willens, later wrote that Kiefhaber "was made aware of Ms. Kaster's attendance before the meeting."

However much notice Kiefhaber had, he apparently didn't appreciate Kaster's appearance.

"The Interior Department sent a minder from their headquarters to obstruct a Congressional staff site visit to Nevada and prevent the Appropriations Committee from getting an unvarnished assessment of the situation on the ground," House Appropriations Committee spokesman Evan Hollander said.

Kiefhaber and Kaster evidently exchanged words, though exactly what transpired has not yet been made public. Kiefhaber could not be reached by email, and Evenson referred questions to the Interior Department.

The department's then-press secretary, Molly Block, first advised E&E News of the incident that Monday afternoon, reporting that Kiefhaber had "verbally harassed and bullied a BLM staffer regarding their participation in the meetings, creating a hostile work environment" (Greenwire, Aug. 27).

In an email sent late that morning Nevada time to Kiefhaber, and provided to E&E News, Willens declared "we were particularly disappointed to learn of your overly aggressive and unprofessional" behavior and said "protocol dictates that we address the situation as promptly as possible."

E&E News also requested separately under FOIA from the BLM Nevada State Office emails referring specifically to the encounter — using terms like "harass," "bully" or "threaten" in relation to Kiefhaber — but the office said there were no such records.

A subsequent FOIA request to the state office for any emails that mention Kiefhaber produced 16 pages of records, which are cited in this story.

The aftermath

On Sept. 6, Willens wrote the House Ethics Committee and the Office of Congressional Ethics, asking for an investigation.

"Mr. Kiefhaber's actions that day made Ms. Kaster feel intimidated and unsafe," Willens wrote.

This week, Interior Communications Director Nick Goodwin said in an email that "OCE has opened an investigation" into the incident.

"We're cooperating with them and are working through their process," Goodwin said.

OCE does not discuss ongoing cases or even confirm whether investigations are underway. By policy, initial reviews take up to 30 days, and additional investigation can take another 59 days.

"We welcome a review of this politically motivated complaint," Hollander, the Appropriations Committee spokesperson, told E&E News. "When the matter is resolved, it will show that the only people who acted inappropriately were the Interior Department political staff who concocted this incident."

OCE started 22 preliminary reviews last year. Seven ended after the first 30 days, and ultimately 11 were referred to the House Ethics Committee. Most complaints involve lawmakers. Since 2014, records show, OCE referred only four complaints involving staffers, all dealing with money.

The dispute has dragged in others, as well.

On Sept. 12, an Interior spokesperson said the department was freezing funding for "any travel for House Appropriation staff until the ethics issue with their staff is resolved ... and the assurance is made that all our employees will be treated equally, fairly and respectfully."

The move alienated Republicans as well as Democrats, with Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) calling it "bullshit."

"This is the administrative branch overreaching," Simpson said in an interview last month. "So what I say is, 'Screw 'em.'"

A spokesperson for Simpson did not respond this week (Greenwire, Sept. 12).

Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10 Email: mdoyle@eenews.net

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