Interior watchdog: top officials misled Congress on BLM relocation out West

Top Interior Department officials misled Congress when they claimed high office rent in Washington, D.C., was a factor in the need to move the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to a new headquarters in Colorado, the agency’s internal watchdog found.

A report on Tuesday from Interior’s Office of Inspector General found that two officials overplayed the cost of BLM’s M Street SE lease near Nationals Park as a motivating factor in the move, as the agency already had plans underway to return to office space owned by the government.

Joseph Balash, a former assistant secretary for land and minerals management who now works in the oil industry, and BLM acting Director William Perry Pendley, whose tenure with the agency is the subject of a lawsuit, are implicated in the report.

Both men wrote in correspondence with Congress that BLM would be unable to stay in its existing M Street SE office because the cost would exceed the $50 per square foot limit set by the government.

The report found the claims were “misleading” and said that “the future lease cost of 20 M Street was irrelevant.”

Interior announced in July of last year that it would move more than 200 of BLM’s Washington-based employees to existing offices across the West, while putting nearly 25 of its top-ranking leaders at a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. The move would leave just 61 of BLM’s 10,000 employees in Washington.

The move was considered a victory for Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerMail-in voting won’t hurt conservatives — Trump will Overnight Energy: Interior watchdog says officials misled Congress | Trump admin finalizes rule on royalty cuts for mining | Groups pressure Biden to exclude fossil fuel execs Interior watchdog: top officials misled Congress on BLM relocation out West MORE (R-Colo.), who is facing a tight reelection campaign, but it raised the eyebrows of former BLM employees, who questioned why the agency would leave such a small footprint in D.C. and set up shop in a town four hours from any major airport.

But well before Grand Junction was on the drawing board, BLM was already planning to leave its M Street SE space.

“When we got that lease it was a bargain,” said Steve Ellis, who retired from the highest-ranking career position within BLM in 2016. 

“Since we moved people in there, Nationals Park popped up across the street, the area’s become much more popular and built up. That’s a good thing, but it meant the lease would be cost prohibitive when it ended, so we we’re looking around at options.”

Rather than pay more than $50 per square foot, the inspector general found evidence from both 2016 and 2017 that the department “had longstanding plans” to move BLM employees either to the Main Interior Building (MIB) or another federal facility.

“The evidence indicated that the future lease cost of 20 M Street was irrelevant at that point due to the department’s earlier plans to move the BLM into the MIB or another Federal facility. Simply stated, the evidence established that the department never seriously contemplated renewing that lease or moving BLM staff into a new commercial location in the Washington, DC area.”

Interior’s planning behind the move has long been questioned by members of Congress and other critics.

“This report makes clear once again that this administration is playing fast and loose with accuracy and the facts to fit their anti-public lands agenda and documents how they misled Congress and the public about their reasons for moving BLM headquarters,” Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Energy: EPA chief outlines vision for agency under ‘Trump’s second term’ | Agency sued over decision not to regulate chemical linked to fetal brain damage Democrats say new EPA office requires congressional approval Interior watchdog: top officials misled Congress on BLM relocation out West MORE (D-N.M.) said in a statement, adding that the move had “resulted in a hollowing out of the agency and the loss of a generation of senior leadership.”

A two-page document Interior identified as the cost-benefit analysis for the move found it would be cheaper to rent office space in Grand Junction, but it did not weigh the costs of finding a new lease elsewhere in D.C. or within existing government office space, nor did it evaluate other potential locations.

“Their analysis really came after the fact,” Ellis said. “The appearance is they had made the decision and then did the analysis.”

“You can’t just look at it in terms of whether the cost is cheaper to rent in Grand Junction versus D.C. Of course Washington, D.C. costs more to rent — that’s the cost of doing business and of having your leadership in the nation’s capital.”

The inspector general report referred the matter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, but his office dismissed the report as a byproduct of congressional backlash to the move.

“On this subject matter, it is clear that some politicians weaponized the BLM’s relocation. Their conduct is intimately tied to the creation of this report,” Interior chief of staff Todd Willens wrote to the inspector general, adding, “I consider this matter closed.”

BLM completed its move to Grand Junction in August, and critics say the disruption has come with a heavy cost.

Reporting from The Hill found that 70 percent of BLM’s Washington employees chose to leave the agency rather than move, while the scattering of staff splits up key teams.

“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,” Western Values Project, a public lands watchdog group, said in a release.

“It appears they have accomplished both at the expense of our tax dollars, public lands, and outdoor heritage.”

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