Dems accuse Interior of holding up key grants

Dems accuse Interior of holding up key grants
© Greg Nash

A group of Senate Democrats says the Interior Department is delaying important grants while it conducts a political review of its grantmaking.

In a Tuesday letter to Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Big-game hunters infuriated by Trump elephant trophy debacle Interior moves ahead with opening wildlife refuge next to contaminated nuclear site MORE, the group, led by Sens. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthDems should run as economic progressives, says ex-Obama strategist Democrats must reconcile party factions to raise blue wave odds Senate Dems want DOJ review of Giuliani's work for foreign entities MORE (Ill.) and Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoFord has no right to set conditions for Kavanaugh testimony Senate Dem blasts colleagues’ ‘callousness’ toward Kavanaugh accuser Blumenthal: Kavanaugh nomination should be withdrawn MORE (Hawaii), say the review procedures “appear to be driving the lack of efficiency and effectiveness in carrying out DOI’s statutory responsibility.”

Interior in December started a process of reviewing numerous grants it has been giving, including large grants to nonprofit organizations and universities.

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The review is being led by Scott Cameron, Interior’s principal deputy assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, and a Zinke political appointee, with the goal of ensuring that grants fit with the Trump administration's priorities.

But Democrats say the review is wreaking havoc on the grantmakers.

“We are concerned that your installation of a high-level political appointee to personally review these individual grant and cooperative agreement decisions weakens confidence in the integrity of the DOI review process and, at the very least, creates the appearance of improper political interference in program decisions that should always be merit-based,” the 12 senators wrote.

“We are concerned that this type of increased political review will result in unnecessary delays, uncertainty for key partners, and, potentially, undue political influence in the evaluation of proposals.”

In response to the letter, Interior on Tuesday defended its grant review process.

“When the secretary began his tenure he made it absolutely clear that the department was to use tax dollars efficiently. A quick look at the grants distributed by Interior revealed that nobody had any idea exactly how much taxpayer money Interior actually distributed in grants, to which organizations, and for what work,” said spokeswoman Heather Swift.

“Additionally, Inspector General reports found gross abuse and misuse of grants. Appropriately, the secretary appointed an individual with three decades of experience in financial institutions to oversee grants.”

The senators asked for various pieces of information about the review, including the timeline and how grants and organizations are being judged.