An environmental advocacy group formally asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Tuesday to investigate whether the Interior Department's recall of furloughed employees during the government shutdown is legal.
Representatives for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) asked the GAO to begin an “immediate” investigation into the sources of funding Interior is using to pay previously furloughed government employees to resume their work.
The request follows reports in the past two weeks that Interior has green-lit the return of staff who work on preparing environmental reviews for offshore oil and gas leasing and processing oil and gas permit applications. Another report confirmed that the agency has asked some Fish and Wildlife Service staff to return to 38 national wildlife refuges to oversee currently ongoing and upcoming hunting programs.
PEER says those job functions are non-essential operations under the law and should be barred from payment under a shutdown.
“Interior appears to be gaming the system to circumvent the shutdown,” PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said in a statement. “These Interior agencies have never previously reported budget surpluses, especially excesses large enough to last well into the second quarter of the current fiscal year.”
The group alleges that the staff recalls show an administration-wide desire to cater to special interest groups, like the fossil fuel industry and sportsmen's groups.
“We are asking GAO to determine whether these staff re-calls represent decisions by [acting Interior Secretary David] Bernhardt to cater to the desires of certain special interests in violation of the letter and intent of the Anti-deficiency Act,” Ruch said. “At this moment, GAO is the only official watchdog left in town.”
Interior’s Office of the Inspector General and Freedom of Information Act office are both currently shuttered under the shutdown.
A GAO Spokesperson said the group had not yet seen the PEER complaint, but would "be happy to have the appropriate GAO officials review it once received."
"In complete compliance with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, Acting Secretary Bernhardt is taking appropriate measures to allow employees to work and earn a paycheck on time," an Interior spokesperson said in a statement.
Earlier Tuesday, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerWe are America's independent contractors, and we are terrified Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two Senate Judiciary Committee to debate key antitrust bill MORE (D-Va.) demanded that the Trump administration provide legal justification for recalling furloughed workers during the shutdown.
Other departments, along with Interior, have instructed furloughed employees to return to work unpaid. The Department of Agriculture ordered 2,500 workers in the Farm Service Agency to go back to work to help farmers with existing loans and tax paperwork. The Treasury Department is bringing back workers to process income verifications vital to the mortgage industry and to help process tax refunds during filing season.
In letters to five of the nine government agencies affected by the shutdown, Warner raised the prospect that they could be in violation of the Antideficiency Act. That law says that government agencies cannot operate without funding from Congress, with the exception of certain “essential” functions that are necessary to prevent “an imminent threat to the safety of human life or the protection of property.”
The law can be used to prosecute agencies and government workers that perform non-exempted functions during a shutdown.
“Rather than finding ways to minimize the impact of the current government shutdown, and straining legal bounds to do so, it is my strong belief that the best way to fix the current situation is to simply end the shutdown,” Warner wrote in letters to the Interior, State, Treasury, Agriculture and Transportation departments.