Lawmakers probe claims of improper influence over science

Interior inspector general questioned about interactions between scientists and policy-makers.

Participants in a House Natural Resources Committee oversight hearing Tuesday examined allegations that Vice President Dick Cheney exerted undue influence over scientific decisions at federal agencies, and discussed ways to strengthen oversight of political appointees.

The hearing focused on two recent disputes between scientists and policy-makers at Interior Department agencies. The first, over potential vice presidential influence at the Fish and Wildlife Service, was highlighted in a June 27 Washington Post story that concluded Cheney subverted scientific findings about a species of endangered fish that lives in Oregon's Klamath River.

According to the article, government scientists found in 2001 that maintaining water levels in the basin was necessary for the survival of an endangered species of salmon, and the Bureau of Reclamation was forced to halt water deliveries to regional farmers. The Post reported that Cheney secretly found a way to bring the initial scientific findings into question, resulting in a decision to resume deliveries in 2002 and "the largest fish kill the West had ever seen."

The Interior Department's inspector general looked into the Klamath River decision in 2004 at the request of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. At the time, the IG's office found no proof that politics had affected the scientific basis of the decision. In a letter to Kerry, the IG stated, "We found no evidence of political interference affecting the decisions pertaining to the water in the Klamath project."

Mary Kendall, Interior's deputy inspector general, said at Tuesday's hearing that the 2004 report grew out of allegations against Karl Rove. Although she stood by the conclusion that Rove exerted no influence over the process, she acknowledged that it was possible the report could have overlooked Cheney's influence.

"Knowing what you now know, would you go back and look for signs [of Cheney's involvement]?" asked Rep. Nick Rahall II, D-W.Va., chairman of the committee.

Kendall said she would.

The hearing also examined the recent resignation of Julie MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. MacDonald, a political appointee, resigned on May 1, after an inspector general report found she leaked sensitive government information and bullied agency biologists into changing or misreporting scientific facts about endangered species habitats. The Fish and Wildlife Service announced on July 20 that it plans to review eight key endangered species decisions that MacDonald might have influenced.

Despite the IG report, MacDonald did not resign until shortly before she was scheduled to appear at a committee oversight hearing.

Kendall said that although MacDonald's conduct was "improper, it was not illegal," meaning she could not be prosecuted for her actions.

"What policies can be applied to ensure this doesn't happen again?" asked Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

John Seeba, assistant inspector general for auditing at the Commerce Department, said agency decisions should be reviewed by independent scientists. Kendall added that although inspectors general can review appointees, as was the case with MacDonald, following up on ethics violations is a congressional responsibility, since inspectors general cannot unmake presidential appointment decisions.