The decision to move the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, was not all about growing costs, as agency officials suggested.
Trump administration officials misled Congress in justifying the relocation of an Interior Department component outside of Washington, a government watchdog found on Tuesday, with the agency overemphasizing the extent to which cost factored into the decision.
The Bureau of Land Management opened its headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado, earlier this year and moved hundreds of employees out of the capital region and into western states. BLM told Congress it had to leave its Washington headquarters near the U.S. Capitol Building, which the agency leased from a private owner, because the space became too expensive. Interior’s inspector general, however, found BLM never verified the cost exceeded a government-wide cap and misrepresented the true cause for its planned relocation.
Interior and BLM’s “representations that cost was the reason for not renewing the lease were misleading,” the IG said.
BLM’s relocation out of Washington has been controversial from the get go, with employees, lawmakers and stakeholders suggesting the Trump administration’s decision was politically motivated and designed to sideline important work. Interior has defended the move as a significant driver of cost savings and as necessary to bring decision makers closer to the lands they manage. Less than half of employees given relocation orders ultimately made the move, with most opting to find new jobs or retire. About 97% of BLM employees worked outside the Washington region prior to the headquarters relocation.
BLM leaders first began discussing plans to not renew the bureau's lease in 2016, but at that time officials said the agency’s intention was to relocate to the main Interior building also in Washington. The bureau therefore never engaged with the General Services Administration to initiate a lease renewal as required. Statements BLM management made to Congress in 2019 suggesting renewal of the lease was not an option were therefore accurate, the IG said, as the window to work with GSA and negotiate the terms of a new lease had already closed.
In discussions with GSA, BLM asked what the cost would be to renew the lease if it could. GSA officials said it was safe to assume the price would be $50 per square foot, a cap in Washington that requires special permission from Congress for federal agencies to exceed. The IG found, however, that it was inaccurate when Joe Balash, then Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals who has since resigned, told Congress in a letter the lease would definitely exceed that cap. No one at GSA, Interior or BLM had conducted any market research to verify that assumption, the IG said.
William Perry Pendley, who is serving as head of BLM, testified to Congress that renewing the lease was not an option “as the new rate would exceed $50 per square foot.” Balash said in an August 2019 letter the lease rate would exceed the cap and “thus, remaining [at its existing headquarters] is not an option for the bureau.” The IG took exception to that language, as it implied the cost was the driving factor for leaving its lease, when in reality it was originally because BLM wanted to join the main Interior building.
The auditors found Balash and Pendley had a limited role in developing the letters and testimony and there was no evidence anyone at Interior acted intentionally to mislead Congress. The IG referred its finding to Interior “for any action deemed appropriate.”
Todd Willens, chief of staff at Interior, said in a letter to the IG that the report confirmed that Trump administration officials told the truth in their communications with Congress, though he did not address the report’s findings that some of their justifications were misleading. He also accused lawmakers of weaponizing BLM’s relocation.
“Members of Congress are indeed entitled to their opinion and their motive, but they are not entitled to have merit when the facts do not support it,” Willens said.