A key Senate Democrat on Thursday asked the acting Interior secretary to rethink the current arrangement that allows the National Park Service during the partial government shutdown to continue public tours of Washington’s Old Post Office clock tower located inside the Trump International Hotel.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the newly installed ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wrote to acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy requesting details on funding sources being used for GSA’s newly established arrangement to fund Park Service operations at the tourist attraction during the appropriations lapse.
The 19th-century tower offering spectacular views of the capital city can be accessed only through the same passageways in the Old Post Office that link to the private hotel Trump created after leasing the historic building from GSA.
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The hotel has been the subject of numerous lawsuits challenging the Trump Organization’s continued profiting from guests at the hotel only a few blocks from the White House while Trump occupies the presidency.
“As the clock tower at Trump International Hotel in Washington stands open, staffed by NPS personnel, valuable public buildings such as the Smithsonian are shuttered,” Peters wrote. “Meanwhile, mounting trash and unsafe conditions at national park sites across the country are putting people and wildlife in jeopardy. At least three people have died at national park sites since the shutdown began.”
Peters acknowledged that GSA “has the authority to transfer funds to NPS under certain conditions,” but he argued to Bernhardt that “the lengths to which to your agencies have gone to open the tower facility within a Trump business enterprise have raised public concerns that the tower may be receiving special treatment, in light of a shutdown that has left 800,000 federal workers furloughed or working without pay.”
After a weeklong closure in December, GSA reopened the tower and updated its agreement with the Park Service. When questioned about this funding, a GSA spokesperson described the funds as “not associated with the current fiscal year’s (FY 2019) appropriations bill,” Peters noted. Subsequently, it was reported that GSA would tap the Federal Buildings Fund to pay to reopen and staff the tower with NPS employees under an interagency agreement between GSA and Interior, which GSA stated was pursuant to Public Law 98-1.
“I would like nothing more than to have all of our rangers and other federal civil servants back at work on behalf of the public,” Peters said. “Conditions are being described as ‘dire’ and on the brink of causing lasting damage and financial repercussions for parks and surrounding communities.”
The senator asked for such details as how much GSA has paid to date during the partial shutdown for the employees and other operational costs, and whether those Park Service employees were paid before the current shutdown.
“Who made the decision to reopen the tower?” he asked. “Please confirm the authority under which it was reopened. What other facilities did GSA determine needed to be reopened after closing those facilities due to the lapse in funding?”
He asked whether the tower was kept open before, during and after the 2013 government shutdown, and he requested the lease with the hotel along with the interagency agreement between GSA and Interior.
GSA said in a statement Friday:
"GSA has not claimed we are obligated to fund NPS operations at the tower during a lapse. The account out of which this Interagency Agreement is funded has an available balance. GSA continues to use this balance to fund not only this agreement but its other service contracts and agreements across the country including building maintenance contracts, janitorial service contracts and utility bills. If and when the account no longer has available balances, all building operation services paid for out of that account will then be impacted by the lapse."
The Park Service did not respond to inquiries by publication time.
This story has been updated with comment from GSA.