Suit to Penetrate Political Screening of Interior Grants
Inspector General Decries “Weak or Non-Existent Controls” on Grants and Aid
Washington, DC — The Interior Department screens grants for political alignment with the priorities of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke but has not disclosed how that process works and what grants have been discontinued or blocked, according to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). At the same time, Interior’s Office of Inspector General finds the agency does not screen grants for conflicts of interest or ethics compliance.
In December 28, 2017 memo, Scott Cameron, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, directed all offices to submit all grants and cooperative agreements with values in excess of $50,000 to universities and other outside groups to ensure they “promote the priorities” of the Secretary. Grants of any size are also subject to “an after-the-fact review process.” The memo ends in a bold face warning that “Instances circumventing the secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards.”
Interior awarded $806 million in project grants and administered $763 million in cooperative agreements during FY 2016, involving more than 18,000 grants and agreements. The person reviewing all these grant applications is Steven Howke, a kindergarten and high school classmate of Zinke who spent his career at a credit union in Whitefish, Montana, Zinke’s home town.
“In Zinke’s Interior Department all roads lead to Whitefish,” remarked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the Office of Surface Mining cancelled in mid-term a contract with the National Academies of Science to study the socio-economic impacts of mountain top coal mining in Appalachia. “The scientific priorities for Interior now revolve around political science.”
A PEER FOIA request seeking information about how this screening process is being implemented, whether grants have been denied, or withdrawn, and what guidance has been given to applicants has gone unanswered for months. As has a similar request for information about grant screening this June submitted by a dozen Democratic senators.
While there is a political review of Interior grants there is no ethics review, according to an August 3, 2018 memo from Interior Deputy Inspector General (IG) Mary Kendall. In that memo, she referenced “many audits and investigations in which we found weak or non-existent controls and policies governing financial assistance agreements.” Pointing to the “systemic nature of these deficiencies”, she urged Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt to “implement policies and procedures to…strengthen the requirements for accountability and transparency” calling such measures “both timely and prudent.”
“Unfortunately, transparency and accountability are not listed among Secretary Zinke’s priorities,” added Ruch, pointing out that Interior has yet to announce any new ethics controls suggested by the IG, such as a bar on gifts from grantees to agency officials. “The continuing absence of transparency suggests that Interior’s more than billion-dollar grant-and-aid program is operated like a political cookie jar.”