The Prodigal Interior Department

U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT), Trump’s pick to head the Interior Department, has a lot to do once he assumes his new position. For starters, let’s start with addressing the Interior Department’s massive corruption epidemic.

For far too long, Interior officials have been on record, abusing their power and status to advance personal agendas, make personal gains, and bullying innocent taxpayers into submission. And no, I am not just talking about the seizure and outright infringement of the private property rights of millions of Americans. I am referencing the aforementioned epidemic of corruption that has engulfed the agency since the beginning of the Obama Administration into the transition to the Trump Administration.

Usually, many of the cabinet-level agencies in the executive branch have independent auditors and watchdog organizations, known as an Inspector General, to focus on detecting fraud, waste, and abuse in the day to day operations of the agency. However, how can an agency rot with corruption trust an independent source if the entity is compromised itself? The simple answer is that it cannot fix corruption issues if corruption is at the top.

In the middle of last year, Republican Congressman Louie Gohmert inquired into the department asking the agency’s acting Inspector General, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, to address cases of “exacerbating corruption.”

Gohmert’s letter, signed in his role as the chairman of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on oversight and investigations, mentioned that citing a recent corruption report from the DOI OIG, “These are troubling findings, and serve as further evidence of exacerbating corruption within the Department of the Interior.” The OIG report cited covered the findings and course of actions surrounding the case of corruption advertently committed by former Bureau of Land Management (BLM) head Bob Abbey.

Other instances that illustrate the level of corruption in the DOI can also be seen with the troubling investigation of Deputy IG Kendall herself, in 2013. The Congressional inquiry stated that the OIG, under Kendall as acting head, was mismanaged. “These [accusations] include: not pursuing investigations involving political appointees or Administration priorities; informing senior Department officials of problems without conducting formal investigations and not issuing reports to Congress and the public; not adequately documenting the management of IG investigations and operations; serving in an appointed policy role in conflict with the IG’s investigative duties; preventing an investigator from seeking information from a White House official; and providing inaccurate and misleading information to Congress,” a public release on the report stated.

Though Kendall still remains in charge of the watchdog and, according to an external perspective, holding agency employees and leaders accountable has been lackluster, at best.

One of the most recent cases of this can be attributed to the BLM official utilizing his position, and the power that comes with it, to get preferential treatment, use agency law enforcement officials as personal escorts, and score tickets to the 2015 Burning Man festival.

Another, more recent case, pointed to the corrupt usage of a government charge card by employees of the U.S. Geological Survey. In the end, the case concluded that over $12,000 of credit, charged by USGS employees, was abused and wasted. Plus, to no major surprise, the list of abuses keeps going and going.

Nevertheless, here is the real paradigm we are faced with: Trump and Zinke rooting out corruption…

One of the major challenges, once Zinke is confirmed, needs to focus his efforts on cleaning house in his immediate staff, working with the agency directors and the OIG to reign in unchecked power and abuse by employees and leaders of the agency, and to reaffirm the agency’s role. Sadly, it is not as simple as de-funding the agency; but, more or less a recovery period to streamline and shrink DOI’s presence.

McGrady is the executive director of McGrady Policy Research.