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Litigating political corruption

The New York Times, December 15, 2008

Report Finds Meddling in Interior Dept. Actions
By Charlie Savage

WASHINGTON — The inspector general of the Interior Department has found that agency officials often interfered with scientific work in order to limit protections for species at risk of becoming extinct, reviving attention to years of disputes over the Bush administration’s science policies.

In a report delivered to Congress on Monday, the inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, found serious flaws in the process that led to 15 decisions related to policies on endangered species.

The report suggested that at least some of those decisions might need to be revisited under the Obama administration.

Among the more significant decisions was one reducing the number of streams that would be designated as critical habitat for the endangered bull trout and protected from commercial use. That rule is already the subject of a lawsuit by environmentalists.

“The results of this investigation paint a picture of something akin to a secret society residing within the Interior Department that was colluding to undermine the protection of endangered wildlife and covering for one another’s misdeeds,” said the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia.

Most of the problematic decisions involved Julie A. MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, who oversaw endangered-species issues and frequently clashed with scientists. The report does not accuse Ms. MacDonald of doing anything illegal, but criticizes her conduct severely.

“MacDonald’s zeal to advance her agenda has caused considerable harm to the integrity” of the Endangered Species Act programs “and to the morale and the reputation” of the Fish and Wildlife Service, “as well as potential harm to individual species,” Mr. Devaney said in a cover letter to his report.

Efforts to reach Ms. MacDonald by telephone on Monday were unsuccessful. She resigned in May 2007 after an earlier inspector general report found that she had run roughshod over agency scientists and violated federal rules by giving internal documents to industry lobbyists.

After her resignation, the Fish and Wildlife Service began a review of eight agency decisions that regional officials said Ms. MacDonald might have manipulated to reach a result that was not supported by scientific evidence. The review is still going on.

But Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon and chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, asked the inspector general to cast a wider net in reviewing Ms. MacDonald’s work and that of several close colleagues.

Of the 20 matters examined in the new report, the report found that Ms. MacDonald was involved in 13, and that in 15 “the integrity of the process was potentially jeopardized” by her or by several colleagues at the department.

“This report makes it crystal clear how one person’s contempt for the public trust can infect an entire agency,” Mr. Wyden said. “Ms. MacDonald’s narrow focus on her own agenda not only endangered the Endangered Species Act, it opened the door for countless land-use decisions and developments that would have never otherwise been considered.”

Mr. Devaney also criticized several of Ms. MacDonald’s colleagues at the agency who, he said, aided and abetted “her attempts to interfere with the science” and “the unwritten policy to exclude as many areas as practicable from critical habitat determinations.”

Spokesmen for the Interior Department and the wildlife service declined to comment, saying they had not yet read the report.

But the service’s spokesman, Chris Tollefson, noted that when previous reports about Ms. MacDonald came out, the agency had made “clear that scientific integrity was very important to the agency and that where there is evidence that improper conduct interfered with a decision, we were committed to going back and revisiting it.”

Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, portrayed Ms. MacDonald’s case as a symbol of a broader pattern of manipulation of science under the Bush administration.

“Over and over again, in agency after agency,” Ms. Grifo said, “we’ve seen where special interests bump up against scientific determinations, the science is set aside.”

The wildlife service report is likely to function as a road map for the Obama administration as it reviews the Bush administration’s decisions on whether to add species to the endangered list or to protect habitat.

In some cases, however, the decision has already been changed by a judge or the agency itself. In others, agency scientists prevailed despite efforts at interference, the report said.

The report also recommended new rules to limit the discretion wildlife service officials have on endangered species.

Under current law, such officials have wide latitude over their decisions. The report said administrations of both parties had exploited that vacuum to maximize their own power to impose their policy preferences.

Under that “enormous policy void,” Mr. Devaney wrote, officials are free to make decisions with “a wholesale lack of consistency, a process built on guess-work, and decisions that could not pass legal muster.”

As a result, he said, much of what the agency does ends up in court, requiring expensive litigation and effectively creating a system in which lawsuits drive the regulatory process.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton