Interior watchdog accused of withholding information from Congress

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee accused the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) of withholding information about a rule on mountaintop removal mining.

The OIG gave Congress a heavily redacted report last year on the department's stream buffer zone rule, which it is writing to protect streams, fish and wildlife from the controversial mining technique.

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“The committee has made multiple requests for this unredacted report and documents, including the issuance of a subpoena, but the OIG refuses to comply and says that the report is being withheld at the request of the Interior Department,” Rep. Doc HastingsDoc HastingsBoehner hires new press secretary GOP plots new course on Endangered Species Act reform GOP accuses feds of bad science in endangered species studies MORE (R-Wash.) said.

“Rather than serve as an independent watchdog of the department, the OIG is now letting the department call the shots,” he said.

Republicans have fought against the stream buffer rule, voting last year to block the Obama administration’s attempt to rewrite the rule that the Bush administration finished.

Mary Kendall, the deputy inspector general, told lawmakers that she redacted parts of the report that pertained to the rule-making process. The Interior Department had asked her to hold those parts back because it is still in the process of writing the rule.

Kendall, who is the top official at the OIG because there is no inspector general, said it was not her place to decide whether the agency's assertions have merit.

“My office has stated repeatedly that this dispute is between the committee and DOI, not the OIG, and we have urged the committee to engage with DOI to resolve this issue,” she said.

“Instead, the committee has continued to pressure the OIG to release privileged documents and information that, if released, would not only jeopardize the OIG’s ability to obtain privileged information from DOI in the future, but would also exacerbate an existing problem in the IG community regarding timely access to information and documents from their agencies and departments.”

Kendall explained that if her office gave Congress information that the Interior Department entrusted to her and her staff, she would break the department’s trust and lose access. She encouraged lawmakers to work directly with the department to obtain the unredacted report.

Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) defended Kendall and accused Republicans of looking for a scandal where there is none. If the OIG found fraud, abuse or some other problem that it needed to tell Congress, it would have, he said.

“The Interior Department’s office of inspector general found no evidence of misconduct or political interference in the ongoing stream protection rule-making,” said Huffman. “That should have been the end of it ... but our Republican colleagues seem to have trouble accepting facts that contradict their conspiracy theories.”

Huffman compared Thursday’s hearing to one Wednesday, at which Democrats accused Republicans of wasting time and money asking the Fish and Wildlife Service for documents related to another investigation.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said Kendall is legally required to keep Congress “fully and currently” informed about her office's investigations.

“By providing a different report to Congress, one that is heavily redacted, you have failed to keep Congress fully and currently informed,” he said.

Lamborn said Kendall should be held in contempt of Congress, though no lawmaker took any action to hold her in contempt.