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Trump administration under fire for tapping temporary directors to head key Interior agencies

Stuart Leavenworth, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration is violating federal law and circumventing the advise-and-consent role of the Senate by relying on temporary directors to head agencies such as the National Park Service, an environmental group alleged Monday.

In a complaint filed with the Interior Department's Inspector General, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility charged that Interior was "completely bypassing Senate confirmation" with its appointments of acting directors to lead the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.

"Federal agencies are not supposed to be run like a temp service," Jeff Ruch, director of PEER, said in announcing the complaint.

Enacted in 1998 as a response to perceived abuses in the Clinton administration, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act sets limits on how long "acting directors" can run federal agencies. It also requires that a temporary director have at least 90 days of senior service the prior year in the agency he or she is running.

In its complaint, PEER says Michael Reynolds served 386 days as acting National Park Service director, far more than the 300-day limit. It also alleges Greg Sheehan, the deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, has served in an acting capacity more than the 210-day limit for his position.

The group also charges that Sheehan as well as the Park Service's P. Daniel Smith and BLM's Brian Steed are all serving as acting directors despite not serving in their agencies for at least 90 days the prior year, and had been appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, not Trump, as the law requires.

 

Asked about PEER's claim, Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift disputed that Smith, Steed and Sheehan were acting directors. "PEER is either lying or doesn't have a basic understanding of facts," Swift said in an email.

Swift said that all three are deputy directors, not acting directors. Yet the Interior Department's website described Smith as "acting director" in a Jan. 24 news release. Sheehan was described as an "acting director" in a separate June 5 Interior news release. As for Steed, the BLM deputy director, Interior's website describes him as "exercising authority of the director."

Asked about claims the three men aren't acting directors, PEER's Ruch responded: "They are called acting directors. They sign memos like acting directors. They quack like acting directors. They are acting directors."

Swift also cited a 1950 statute, Reorganization Plan No. 3, as giving the Interior secretary authority to delegate duties to temporary officers. But Ruch argues that the 1998 Federal Vacancies Reform Act supersedes that 1950 law.

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