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THE LEAD STORY: 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 2019 that it would move more than 200 of BLM’s D.C.-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 Gardner (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