WASHINGTON, DC--Stung by repeated scandals, Interior Secretary Gale Norton today announced a plan to consolidate all real estate appraisal functions in a new unit in order to provide "greater independence" and "restore public confidence," according to an agency fact sheet. The plan grew out of recommendations by an interagency work group formed in response to charges by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) appraisers that political interference in Utah land exchanges could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
Today's Interior-wide action is a concession that political manipulation of real estate appraisals is a major problem not just within BLM, but within the Park Service, Bureau of Reclamation and Fish and Wildlife Service as well. The idea behind the consolidation is to remove appraisers from agency and bureau chains-of-command so that appraisals can be done objectively, according to professional standards.
The Western Land Exchange Project (WLXP) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), who have been beating the drum for reform of the land exchange process, claim that much of the political interference has been coming from Secretary Norton herself and her top aides. Thus, the key to whether the plan will work as intended is whether Secretary Norton will implement the new organization in good faith.
"Secretary Norton hasn't shown much interest in protecting public land, but these multi-million dollar taxpayer losses may have finally piqued her interest," stated WLXP staff attorney Christopher Krupp. "While the creation of an Interior-wide appraisal office is a large first step towards reform, the key will be how the office is structured, to what extent its managers are insulated from political meddling and whether those managers are qualified appraisers or, as they are today, just political fixers," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch whose organization represents the BLM whistleblowers.
The timing of today's announcement is curious in some respects:
The comment period for the broader recommendations issued by BLM's own "Appraisal and Exchange Workgroup" closes tomorrow and many Interior entities have yet to submit their comments; and
Last week Secretary Norton requested yet another extension in responding to disclosures of serious wrongdoing made by BLM appraiser Kent Wilkinson last summer. Her response was originally due in November.
As a result, today's action by Secretary Norton avoids assigning any individual responsibility for past improprieties, appearing to take a "no-fault" approach toward containing this scandal.