Washington, DC - In a blistering report, the Appraisal Foundation excoriates Bureau of Land Management (BLM) handling of land exchanges in Western states, according to documents jointly released today by the Western Land Exchange Project (WLXP) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Created by Congress following the savings & loan scandals, the Appraisal Foundation is charged with setting real estate appraisal standards and qualifications. It conducted the evaluation under a contract with the BLM. The report faults not only the pending, controversial San Rafael exchange with the State of Utah but agency practices generally. The Appraisal Foundation found -
Widespread violations of laws, deviation from rules and deficiencies in procedures;
A "politicized" process in which the appraisers are under "undue pressure" to bend rules and face "personal jeopardy" from BLM and Department of Interior managers eager to close deals; and
Utter failure to address persistent internal reports of misconduct, leading to "total breakdowns" of management and adherence to legal standards.
This latest report comes in the wake of numerous government audits that have identified BLM's appraisal function as a "material weakness." In order to remedy what it termed actions "detrimental to the public interest," the Appraisal Foundation recommends -
A moratorium of all pending exchanges, including the San Rafael exchange in Utah that was recently the subject of a similar finding of deficiency from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel;
A Department of Justice investigation of "violations of law" occurring in BLM land deals; and
Formation of a separate appraisal entity to oversee all Department of Interior land valuations and exchanges.
In what appears to be a related development, during the past few days BLM has quietly removed two top officials from its Washington, DC headquarters: Realty Lands & Realty Manager Ray Brady and Chief Appraiser David Cavanaugh. Last year, WLXP and PEER asked for Cavanaugh's removal for many of the same reasons cited in the Appraisal Foundation report.
The Appraisal Foundation had full access to BLM staff and records in conducting its review. In 2000, the U.S. Forest Service cleaned up its scandal-plagued land exchange program by implementing the recommendations from a similar Appraisal Foundation evaluation.
"This is a thoroughly devastating indictment of Interior's land appraisal process," said Janine Blaeloch of the Western Land Exchange Project. "As it did with the Forest Service, the Appraisal Foundation has laid out the blueprint for reform."
"This report completely vindicates the BLM appraisers who risked their careers to bring these issues forward," stated PEER General Counsel Dan Meyer through whose organization BLM appraiser Kent Wilkinson made disclosures to the Office of Special Counsel. "These findings cut right to the core duty of any Secretary of Interior - to safeguard the lands held in trust for future generations."
Despite a series of damaging revelations about the San Rafael exchange with the State of Utah, including a possible $100 million loss to the federal treasury, last week the House of Representatives passed a bill by Rep. Chris Cannon (HR 4968) codifying the exchange by a unanimous vote. It is unclear whether the Senate will take up the matter.
Also pending is Interior Secretary Gale Norton's decision of how to respond to a finding by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel concerning improprieties in the proposed San Rafael exchange.