Dems request $2.5M more funding for Interior watchdog after increase in probe requests

Two top House Democrats are asking Congress for additional funds for the Department of Interior (DOI) top watchdog following a steep increase in investigation requests.

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chairman TJ Cox (D-Calif.) sent a joint letter to the House Committee on Appropriations Tuesday asking for $2.5 million in additional funding for the Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

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“The funds would allow the OIG to meet the growing need to address oversight of grants, cybersecurity, and the bureaus with troubling track records, as well as potential ethical lapses, conflicts of interest, waste, fraud, mismanagement, and abuse at DOI,” the lawmakers wrote.

In their request, the lawmakers note that the OIG received only a 2 percent increase in funding between fiscal years 2015 and 2018, and, during that time period, complaints filed against Interior increased 48 percent.

The percent of cases opened by OIG have not reflected the increase in requests. Lawmakers say the office opened 7 percent of requested cases in 2018 compared to 14 percent in 2015.

It’s a result the Democrats link to lacking financial resources.

“The result is that the OIG is referring increasing numbers of hotline complaints to the Interior Department, where the investigation suffers from a loss of independence and transparency,” they wrote.

“Because of funding and staffing shortfalls, the OIG has been increasingly unable to take up investigation requests from Congress and from within the DOI.”

A spokesperson for the Interior Department's OIG told The Hill the office "always strives to balance resources and efforts to meet the need to prevent and detect fraud, waste and abuse at DOI. We appreciate the expression of support that this request demonstrates."

Investigation requests sent to the OIG have dramatically ticked-up under the Trump administration. A number of those probes have focused specifically on former Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump's order to trim science advisory panels sparks outrage Trump's order to trim science advisory panels sparks outrage Conserving wildlife migrations starts with listening to landowners MORE, who quit in January. One of those probes was later referred to the Department of Justice and is currently being considered by a grand jury.

The lawmakers blamed Zinke’s questionable ethics in part for the surge in OIG requests, arguing that they believe Interior’s acting Secretary David Bernhardt will not fair much better.

“Former Secretary Ryan Zinke, one of the most scandal-prone Cabinet members in history, left behind significant damage when he department in January,” they wrote.

“Acting Secretary David Bernhardt shows little signs of reducing the workload at the OIG; he and several other high-ranking DOI political appointees were formerly lobbyists for, or employees of, the industries they now regulate.”

Updated at 5:54 p.m.