Environmental Group Charges Interior With Illegally Filling Top Vacancies

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke walks through a hunting expo in Utah. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke walks through a hunting expo in Utah. Rick Bowmer/AP

Policy decisions being made by acting heads of three agencies within the Interior Department should be declared null and void, according to a complaint filed with Interior’s inspector general by an environmental advocacy group.

The current top officers at the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management are working “in blatant violation of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act,” said the complaint filed on Monday by the Silver Spring, Md.-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, an alliance of federal and state government workers.

“President Trump’s tardiness in nominating agency leaders may undo months of work inside the Department of the Interior,” the group said in a release. “Federal agencies are not supposed to be run like a temp service.”

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Under the 1998 vacancies act, decisions made by acting appointees who have overstayed their permitted tenure “shall have no force or effect,” the complaint said. “The law prevents a president from installing acting directors for long periods and completely bypassing Senate confirmation,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that President Trump has not nominated or even announced an intention to nominate permanent individuals for the three agencies.

National Park Service official P. Daniel Smith, an NPS veteran whom Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke named as deputy director in a Jan. 9 press release, “did not serve in a senior position for 90 days during the prior year, as the act requires,” PEER argued. “Nor did Trump appoint him, another requirement of the act.”

Bureau of Land Management official Brian Steed, an economist who was chief of staff to Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah., was named deputy director for programs and policy, “exercising authority of the director" last October. According to PEER, “he also did not serve in a senior position for 90 days and Interior Secretary Zinke, not Trump, appointed him.”

Finally, Zinke last June named FWS official Greg Sheehan, a veteran of the Utah offices of the agency, to the “the newly created position of deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.” According to PEER, Sheehan “not only suffers from these same deficiencies but also now exceeds the 210-day limit the act imposes.”

PEER asked the inspector general to catalog all possible violations of the Vacancies Act in the three offices and make public the results.

Asked for comment, Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Interior secretary’s office, told Government Executive, “PEER is either lying or doesn't understand basic facts. None of the individuals in the press release are acting directors.”

The Interior IG office said it is reviewing the complaint to see if it is actionable.

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