Zinke signed order in January making 'acting' directors official

Zinke signed order in January making 'acting' directors official
© Greg Nash

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkePuerto Rican police fire tear gas at crowds protesting governor Overnight Energy: Trump officials gut DC staff for public lands agency to move West | Democrats slam EPA over scientific boards | Deepwater Horizon most litigated environmental issue of decade Trump officials gut DC staff as public lands agency preps to move out West MORE gave 10 of his acting directors more permanence in January, signing an order giving them most of the authority of a Senate-confirmed director.

Signed under the radar, Zinke’s Jan. 12 order gave the acting directors for such bureaus as the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service “temporary re-delegation of authority,” according to the order obtained by watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Under their new roles, the 10 employees filling in as acting directors and assistant secretaries during President Trump’s transition period were elevated to official roles, so long as their jobs only entail “those functions or duties that are not required by statute or regulation to be performed only by the Senate-confirmed official occupying the position.”

“The order is intended to ensure uninterrupted management and execution of the duties of these vacant non-career positions during the Presidential transition pending Senate-confirmation of new non-career officials,” read Zinke’s order.

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A number of watchdog groups have questioned the legitimacy of acting directors to remain in roles meant to be temporary during the transition period.

Zinke celebrated his anniversary as Interior secretary last week and Trump has been in office for over a year, yet more than 200 presidential appointments still remain without a nominee.

PEER filed a complaint in February to the Interior Department's Office of the Inspector General arguing that the department is misusing and abusing the roles of at least three of its temporary acting directors.

In their complaint, PEER said Interior's continued employment of National Park Service acting Director Daniel Smith, Bureau of Land Management acting Director Brian Steed and Fish and Wildlife Service acting Director Greg Sheehan appears to be a "blatant violation" of the Vacancies Reform Act.

That law prevents the president from circumventing the constitutional advice and consent role of the Senate.

The group additionally argued that that actions taken by the bureaus under the acting directors may also be unlawful, and could leave those agencies open to lawsuits.

However, in its response to PEER’s complain, Interior’s inspector general said that the acting directors were not in violation of the act because of their recent re-designation the month before.

“We determined that while these individuals have been referred to as ‘acting’ in various news reports and Department press releases, all three of them have been formally given the title of deputy director,” the inspector general wrote.

Deputy directors take on the roles of directors when no director has been confirmed by the Senate.

The inspector general report said it was referring the complaint to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for further review.

The Interior Department did not return The Hill’s request for comment.

“This legal shadow across the core of Interior is solely a product of Executive Branch dysfunction,” said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch in a statement. “Regardless of what GAO decides, this issue will be litigated in what could be scores of federal court cases challenging Interior decisions affecting endangered species, mining, drilling, grazing, and everything else these three agencies administer.”