Washington, DC - A sixty-day review of Department of Interior land exchanges has bogged down amid charges of agency "manipulation" and obstruction. According to documents released today by the Western Land Exchange Project (WLXP) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER):
An official suspected of abusing her authority remains in charge of reviewing land exchanges for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-even after the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) asked the Interior Department to look into her culpability in negotiating a Utah land exchange that would have cost taxpayers an estimated $100 million;
The Appraisal Foundation reported to a member of Congress that BLM appraisal staff had been ordered to avoid putting their findings into writing so that memos pointing to the inequity of the Utah trade would not be "auditable." The Foundation also found that key agency files were missing; and
In a national meeting of BLM appraisers, participants described "manipulation" and a "cover-up" by top officials to skew land exchanges to the detriment of taxpayers.
"Officials at the very top of the Interior Department are sanctioning corrupt land deals and keeping wrongdoers in positions of authority," said WLXP director Janine Blaeloch.
On September 30, the OSC ordered the Secretary of Interior to review allegations by BLM appraiser, Kent Wilkinson, and report findings within 60 days. As that deadline approached, OSC extended it by another 60 days.
In mid-October, the Appraisal Foundation released a devastating report about BLM land exchange practices, calling for a Department of Justice investigation and removal of the appraisal function into a separate entity. Shortly thereafter, the two top BLM real estate officials transferred out of the agency.
"As in the tribal trust accounts scandal, Interior Secretary Gale Norton is making a bad problem worse by circling the wagons around the bad actors in her office," commented PEER General Counsel Dan Meyer.