Sept. 1 (UPI) — U.S. Interior officials misled Congress when they said cost was behind the department’s decision to relocate the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Colorado, a watchdog report said Tuesday.
The Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of the Interior said two officials — Joseph Balash, former assistant secretary for land and minerals management, and William “Perry” Pendley, acting director of the BLM — made the misleading statements in letters sent to congressional committees about the move.
The officials said it couldn’t remain at its current M Street location in Washington, D.C., after the end of 2020 because the cost of the lease was expected to exceed the U.S. government’s limit — $50 per square foot.
The inspector general said that while it’s true the rent was going up on the location, the BLM already had “longstanding plans” in place to move into a federal building — the Stewart Lee Udal DOI Building, better known as the Main Interior Building.
In fact, the inspector general said, the Interior Department hadn’t engaged with the U.S. General Services Administration to enter into lease negotiations with the landlord at the M Street building beyond 2020.
The report said Balash and Pendley weren’t personally involved in drafting the letters they sent to Congress and that the misleading statements came from misinterpretations by Interior Department and BLM staff about the market rates for commercial leases in the capital.
“Simply stated, the evidence established that the department never seriously contemplated renewing that lease or moving BLM staff into a new commercial location in the Washington, D.C., area,” the report says.
In response to the inspector general report, Todd Willens, chief of staff for Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, said politicians have “weaponized” the relocation efforts.
“Their conduct is intimately tied to the creation of this report,” he said. “Members of Congress are indeed entitled to their opinion and their motive, but they are not entitled to have merit when the facts do not support it. I respect and appreciate the mission of the OIG and trust that you will continue to look at your operations to ensure that taxpayer resources are focused on matters firmly outside the arena of policy-based interbranch disputes…I consider this matter closed.”
The Interior Department announced plans to move BLM headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., in July 2019 and finalized the relocation Aug. 10.
The BLM manages nearly 245 million acres of lands in the West — in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Oregon. That represents more than 99 percent of the country’s surface lands, but doesn’t include the 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate.
About 9,200 total BLM employees are stationed across the country, with about 260 in the capital. The agency said more than 200 positions would relocate from Washington, D.C., to western states.