For Immediate Release: Monday, March 16, 2020
Contact: Peter Jenkins (202) 265-4189
Rare Battle Over Ethics And Legality Of Agency Press Release
Washington, DC —–Ten prominent retired Public Affairs, Communications, and Outreach officers have criticized their own former agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), in an unprecedented Inspector General complaint over violating basic press relations norms and fairness policies. The controversy stems from the FWS press release that announced a public comment period on the agency’s proposed rule to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to benefit oil, gas, and mining interests. The proposed rule would allow industry to kill birds in their operations without legal consequences unless the government proves the killings were intentional. The official FWS release includes favorable statements from 28 industry organizations and others, ranging from the Governor of Alaska to the National Association of Home Builders. The complaint requests that the Interior Inspector General investigate whether advance copies of the proposal were inappropriately shared with some, but not all, of the parties potentially affected by it.
The signing press officers have over 200 years of combined experience and they prepared or oversaw “literally hundreds” of government press releases and announcements. Their complaint delivered to the Interior Inspector General says that the release for the proposed rule was “bizarre and unacceptable.” Further, it violated basic fairness as well as the FWS’s own communications policies by attaching supportive industry comments, giving them “preferential treatment.” They observed that: “The proposed rule will allow industry to kill birds with impunity in oil spills, oil waste ponds, cyanide leach pits and other sources of preventable, foreseeable bird deaths.”
“This was a serious breach of protocol and communications ethics in how the regulatory rule-making and public comment process was handled,” said David Klinger of Boise, Idaho, a former regional press chief with the FWS. “The Service’s commitment to fair and impartial regulatory rule-making has been called into question. With great reluctance, we chose to challenge our old agency in which we all were proud to serve.”
The issue of emasculation of one of the nation’s venerable conservation laws first arose in 2018, the 100th anniversary year of the MBTA, when 17 former Interior Department officials, FWS Directors, and senior-level migratory bird experts — many of them political appointees who served both Republican and Democratic presidents as far back as the Nixon Administration — signed a public letter of protest over the Interior Department’s reinterpretation of the MBTA. The Trump Administration ignored that 2018 appeal and has since moved to codify its internal legal reinterpretation into a Federal regulation.