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Interior puts grants worth hundreds of millions of dollars through political review

Interior Department grants to nonprofits and universities now go through a political-apointee review in which they are scrutinized using Secretary Ryan Zinke’s “Top Ten Priorities.”
Interior Department grants to nonprofits and universities now go through a political-apointee review in which they are scrutinized using Secretary Ryan Zinke’s “Top Ten Priorities.” (Jabin Botsford)

The Interior Department has adopted a new screening process for the discretionary grants it makes to outside groups, instructing staff to ensure those awards "promote the priorities" of the Trump administration.

The Dec. 28 directive, obtained by The Washington Post, represents the latest attempt by Trump political appointees to put their mark on government spending. Last summer, the Environmental Protection Agency instituted a system requiring that a political appointee in the public affairs office sign off on each grant before it is awarded.

Scott J. Cameron, Interior's principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, instructed other assistant secretaries and bureau and office heads to submit most grants and cooperative agreements for approval by one of his aides. Those include any award of at least $50,000 "to a non-profit organization that can legally engage in advocacy" or "to an institution of higher education."

The EPA directive also targeted federal grants to universities and nonprofit groups. Although Cameron did not identify the total amount of funding affected by the new policy, and the department declined to comment on the matter, Interior officials said it involves hundreds of millions of dollars.

An attachment to the directive listed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's "Top Ten Priorities" by which each award would be scrutinized. The list begins with "Creating a conservation stewardship legacy second only to Teddy Roosevelt" and includes "Utilizing our natural resources."

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email Tuesday that the department had been reviewing grants and cooperative agreements totaling at least $100,000 since April and that "the new guidance continued the responsible stewardship of tax dollars."

Although Interior secretaries under Democratic and Republican presidents have directed federal dollars to support their priorities, the new approval process appears to be without precedent within the department.

David J. Hayes, who served as Interior's deputy secretary under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, said in an email Monday that laws passed by Congress govern these programs.

"Subjugating Congress' priorities to 10 of the Secretary's own priorities is arrogant, impractical and, in some cases, likely illegal," said Hayes, executive director of the New York University School of Law's State Energy and Environmental Impact Center.

"Our senior leadership team never set up a process like this — that is, a process that identifies broad categories of contracts, at modest financial levels, that must be kicked upstairs to headquarters for political sign-off," Hayes added. "To the contrary, we recognized that government contract processes are complex, and that political interference would sully the integrity of contracting processes that applicants have a right to expect are governed with fairness, impartiality, and integrity as their guide."

Cameron's memo warns, in a sentence that is bolded as well as italicized, that employees who defy the directive will be subject to even stricter oversight as a result.

"Instances circumventing the Secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards," it states.

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement that he would need to review the new system, "but I'm immediately skeptical given the administration's track record."

"This grant approval process looks like a backdoor way to stop funds going to legitimate scientific and environmental projects," he said. "Using the federal grant process to punish scientists doing important work because they disagree with that philosophy is unacceptable, and there's good reason to think that's what's really happening here."

Interior has ordered the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to halt two studies that conflict with the administration's goal of expanding domestic fossil fuel production.

Officials said they had questions about the studies' expense to taxpayers. One, stopped in August, was looking at whether residents near surface coal mining sites in Appalachia face higher health risks than other Americans. The second, suspended last month, was aimed at updating and enhancing the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement's oil and gas inspection program.

Swift did not identify how many grants, or which ones, had been canceled as a result of the earlier review. She said it was too early to say how many awards would now come under scrutiny "since the guidance is so new."

Read more:

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This study aimed to make offshore drilling safer. Ryan Zinke just put a stop to it.