Wyden to Hold Interior Nominee Until Ethics Concerns are Addressed

Washington, D.C. - Citing serious ethics transgressions committed by a high-ranking Interior Department official, Julie MacDonald, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced today that he will place a hold on Senate confirmation of Lyle Laverty, the President's nominee for Assistant Interior Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, until he is satisfied that such transgressions will not happen again.

In his letter to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne (see below), Wyden references a recent report by the Interior Department's Inspector General, Earl Devaney, which documents MacDonald's actions as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. According to the Inspector General's findings, Ms. MacDonald repeatedly leaked internal Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) documents to business groups who opposed the FWS and its environmental decision making in court. Some of these internal documents later surfaced as evidence in lawsuits filed against FWS.

Wyden's letter also charges MacDonald, a trained civil engineer with no formal education in the natural sciences, with forcing FWS scientists and staff to alter their findings, often with no scientific basis. In one case, she demanded that the determined nesting range of the Southwest Willow Flycatcher be shrunk from a 2.1-mile radius to 1.8 miles, so that it would not cross into the state of California, where her husband's family owned a ranch.

"Ms. MacDonald has betrayed the mission she swore to uphold." Wyden said. "Her actions have undermined both the work and the integrity of the fish and wildlife service and its many dedicated employees. By placing a hold on Mr. Laverty's nomination, I want the Administration to get the message that this behavior must come to a stop for the duration of the Bush Administration."

President Bush nominated Mr. Laverty to be Assistant Interior Secretary on March 26.

Wyden's letter to Secretary Dirk Kempthorne is below. (To read the Inspector General's Report in its entirety, visit: http://wyden.senate.gov/DOI_IG_Report.pdf)

Secretary Dirk Kempthorne

U.S. Interior Department

1849 C St. NW

Washington, D.C. 20240

April 30, 2007

Dear Secretary Kempthorne:

I'm writing to express my deep concern about the findings of a recent investigation by Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney into ethical transgressions by a high-ranking official - Julie MacDonald, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

According to the Inspector General, who referred his report to the Department in March for administrative action, Ms. MacDonald violated the federal regulations governing the Use of Nonpublic Information under section 2635.703 of Title 5 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) and the Basic Obligation of Public Service, Appearance of Preferential Treatment under section 2635.101 of Title 5. The Inspector General's Investigative Report also documents examples where Ms. MacDonald unilaterally countermanded the findings of Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) career scientists and staff and repeatedly interfered in that agency's proceedings.

First, the Investigative Report describes how Ms. MacDonald repeatedly leaked internal FWS documents to outside parties who opposed the FWS and its environmental decision making in court, including the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Pacific Legal Foundation; to two people with e-mail addresses at Chevron; and to the father of an online role-playing game partner, who had no legitimate reason for access to internal Interior Department records.

Documents leaked by Ms. MacDonald included draft studies and preliminary discussions about application of the Endangered Species Act. Some internal documents leaked by Ms. MacDonald later have surfaced as evidence in litigation, such as FWS e-mails and attachments that became part of a lawsuit filed against the FWS by the California Farm Bureau Federation regarding the Delta Smelt, an endangered species in California. The Farm Bureau argued that the FWS e-mails were evidence of internal disagreement on important rulemaking. Ms. MacDonald literally undermined her own agency's case.

In another instance, asked by the Inspector General about documents she leaked to the Pacific Legal Foundation, "MacDonald admitted to sending the Interim Critical Habitat Guide via her government e-mail account to a PLF attorney. She acknowledged that the document would not have been released under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request; however, she said that did not mean she could not release it to a personal friend, the PLF attorney, as long as the attorney would not post the document on the PLF's Web site." This is not only a most stunning example of Ms. MacDonald's cavalier attitude toward her obligations as a senior official regarding the public release of agency documents, but it also indicates a failure to understand even the basic operation of FOIA.

The report concluded that as a result of these various actions MacDonald violated the Code of Federal Regulations pertaining to Basic Obligation of Public Service (5 C.F.R. 2635.101) and Appearance of Preferential Treatment and Use of Nonpublic Information (5 C.F.R. 2635.703).

Second, the Report describes numerous examples where Ms. MacDonald literally bullied and threatened Fish and Wildlife Service scientists and staff to change the results of their studies to support conclusions that were not supported by their analyses or, in some cases, by outside scientific findings.

Ms. MacDonald, a civil engineer by training, has no formal education in the natural sciences. Yet FWS employees say that she repeatedly intervened in agency studies and findings regarding petitions to list species as endangered or habitats as critical. For example, she required FWS scientists to reduce the critical habitat miles for Bull Trout in the Klamath River basin from 296 miles to 42 miles. In another case, she demanded that they shrink their determined nesting range for the Southwest Willow Flycatcher from a 2.1-mile radius to 1.8 miles, so it wouldn't cross into the state of California, where her family has business interests. In a third case, she "circumvented the chain of command" at FWS to ensure that the agency's study change the flow rate for Kootenai River sturgeon from a range of 2.3 to 5.9 cubic feet per second recommended by FWS staff to precisely 5.9, for easier operation of dams on the river.

In all of these cases, Ms. MacDonald overrode the technical findings of career FWS scientists and staff with little, if any, scientific basis. This not only interfered with the agency's ability to make sound scientifically based decisions, but the Report documents the fact that Ms. MacDonald's interference in the agency's process compromised the legal integrity and position of the agency to the point where FWS regional attorneys routinely refused to sign-off on the legal sufficiency of the agency's work (known as "surnaming").

Third, the report describes a pattern of hostile behavior that has undermined the morale and integrity of FWS as a professional organization. To cite one of many interviews in the report, the FWS assistant director for external affairs told the inspector general that Ms. MacDonald refused to accept scientific findings from her agency's field biologists. She "described MacDonald as ‘an angry woman' who had been abusive to her and had become a liability to FWS. She stated that MacDonald had demoralized the FWS program with her interference in endangered species studies - often reaching ‘way down the line' to have reports reflect what she wanted."

These are serious transgressions and abuses of authority by a senior Interior Department official. As we discussed during your Senate confirmation hearing last year, I believe it is imperative that the Department act decisively to address the ethics scandals that have tarnished its reputation in recent years. However, public confidence in the Department remains shaky - and for legitimate reason, as documented by the Inspector General's investigative report on Ms. MacDonald.

As a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, with oversight responsibility for the Interior Department, and as a Senator representing a state directly affected by Ms. MacDonald's actions as cited in the Inspector General's investigative report, I ask that you inform me what actions you are taking in response to this matter.

Until I am satisfied that the transgressions involving Ms. MacDonald will not be allowed to happen again in your Department, I shall place a hold on Senate confirmation of Lyle Laverty, the President's nominee for Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Sincerely,

Sen. Ron Wyden

United States Senator