Interior Department spokesman Nicholas R. Goodwin on Wednesday evening said the department had responded to Warner’s questions.
In February, Warner voted against an Interior nominee for deputy secretary, who was approved anyway. He said then that he would “strongly consider placing a hold on Interior nominees moving forward until I receive adequate responses to my questions” about the Park Police handling of the case. Warner said Wednesday he still had heard nothing, so he placed a hold on the nomination of Lanny Erdos to serve as the director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Erdos is currently the acting director of the office and previously spent 31 years with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
“And if we don’t get answers,” Warner said, “to the legitimate questions that I and other members of this body, and the House, have raised about the shooting of Bijan Ghaisar, I’m prepared to hold up even more nominees.” He said the Ghaisar family has “waited two years for answers from a federal government that has failed completely to respond to this tragedy. I’m not going to rest until the Ghaisar family has those answers.”
Warner said he wanted copies of the Park Police policies on use of force and vehicular pursuit, both of which were changed after the Ghaisar shooting, and to know the status of the officers. He also wanted to know whether the Park Police had begun an internal affairs inquiry or done an “after-action review” of the slaying.
The Interior Department issued an identical response Wednesday to one it provided in February. “Throughout the process, the National Park Service has communicated with Congress to provide updates and information as it is able without interfering in any ongoing investigations and litigation.” Goodwin said Erdos would retain his authority as acting director of the surface mining office.
Ghaisar, 25, was a Northern Virginia native and an accountant with no criminal record who worked for his father’s firm. He was driving south on the George Washington Memorial Parkway shortly before 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 17, 2017, when he stopped in a lane of traffic and was rear-ended by a Toyota Corolla. Instead of exchanging information, Ghaisar drove away, according to a Park Police report and the Corolla driver, who was operating as an Uber driver. His passenger called police to report the incident.
Amaya and Vinyard, in a marked Park Police SUV, spotted Ghaisar’s Jeep Grand Cherokee a few minutes later in the Fairfax County section of the parkway, and turned on their lights and siren. Ghaisar stopped twice, one or both officers got out with guns drawn, and Ghaisar drove away both times.
At a third stop, in the Fort Hunt neighborhood of Fairfax, Ghaisar again drove away, according to video recorded by a camera in a Fairfax police car that followed the pursuit. As Ghaisar maneuvered his Jeep around the Park Police vehicle, Amaya and Vinyard fired 10 shots into the Jeep, fatally wounding the unarmed Ghaisar, federal authorities said.
The Park Police took over the investigation for the first three days, then handed it to the FBI. The civil rights division of the Justice Department and the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington took two years to consider the case, then declined to file charges.
Then-Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh obtained the FBI case file and planned to present the incident to a grand jury in December for possible murder indictments, but the Justice Department blocked FBI agents from testifying. New Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano took office in January and declared his interest in pursuing the case.
Descano said Wednesday that the coronavirus outbreak “has not derailed our investigation into the Ghaisar case whatsoever.” He noted that “although there has been a lack of willing cooperation from federal authorities, we have been fortunate to have very constructive communication with local law enforcement partners as well as the Ghaisar family’s counsel.” He said the case was “at the forefront of my mind daily” and that he is “confident we will be announcing our findings in the coming months.”
Descano said the lack of cooperation referred to a February letter from Assistant Attorney General Eric S. Dreiband that said FBI agents would not be allowed to testify if Fairfax chose to present the case to a grand jury. Descano said Wednesday that if he decides to prosecute the officers, the case would go to a grand jury. He said Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Kyle Manikas was heading the investigation.
Park Police officials have refused to answer specific questions about the case. Amaya, 40, and Vinyard, 38, were placed on administrative duty with pay in April 2018, according to a letter sent to Grassley from Interior last October. Park Police Sgt. Eduardo Delgado said Wednesday night that the officers remain on administrative duty, and that no internal affairs investigation of the case will begin until after a decision is made by Fairfax on filing criminal charges. He said after the internal affairs case, an incident review board will be convened to do an overall after-action review.
The Ghaisar family also is pursuing a civil suit against the Park Police and the two officers in federal court in Alexandria. A federal magistrate judge in March ordered the Justice Department to turn over the FBI’s files, over the department’s objections, and a discovery deadline of July 10 has been set. But no pretrial depositions have been taken in the case, family attorney Thomas Connolly said, because of the stay-home orders related to the pandemic, which could cause further delay.