Federal watchdog: Trump admin broke law by pulling from park entrance fees during shutdown

A top government watchdog says the Trump administration violated the law when it used funds taken from park entrance fees to keep national parks open during this year's partial government shutdown.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded in its investigation released Thursday that the Interior Department and National Park Service (NPS) violated the AntiDeficiency Act and the purpose statute by using congressional funds to pay government workers to clean park bathrooms and maintain sites when part of the federal government was shuttered during the record-long shutdown.

“Interior disregarded not only the laws themselves but also the congressional prerogatives that underlie them. Instead of carrying out the law, Interior improperly imposed its own will,” Thomas Armstrong, GAO general counsel, wrote in his 16-page legal opinion.

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The opinion followed requests by various House and Senate lawmakers to look into the Trump administration’s January decision to use the park recreational fees, also known as FLREA funds, to keep highly trafficked national parks open despite the shutdown. 

The unprecedented decision authorized the use of up to $250 million in funds to keep parks running, according to internal documents obtained by The Hill. 

In his letter, Armstrong blasted the Interior Department for its violation of the law and its failure to respond to GAO requests for an explanation, the agency’s legal view of the matter and other information. The details were due by June 7.

“An agency’s failure to respond will not preclude our issuance of an opinion. We take our responsibility to Congress seriously, and will not allow an agency’s lack of cooperation to interfere with Congress’s oversight of executive spending,” Armstrong wrote.

“In this case, we reviewed publicly available documents, such as Interior’s congressional budget justifications (CBJ) and correspondence between Interior and Members of Congress. These documents provided sufficient information to issue a legal opinion on NPS’s activities.”

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An Interior spokeswoman said GAO's conclusion didn't include all of the facts. The agency did not respond to questions about why they didn't provide the watchdog with the materials requested.

"It’s obvious that the GAO reached their conclusion prematurely and without regard for all of the facts. We completely disagree with the GAO's erroneous opinion regarding our appropriate and lawful use of FLREA funds. The Department acted well within its legal authority to clean up restrooms and pick up trash, so the American people could enjoy their National Parks," the spokeswoman said.

Rep. Betty McCollumBetty Louise McCollumHouse approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump Pelosi heading to Madrid for UN climate change convention Overnight Energy: Mark Ruffalo pushes Congress on 'forever chemicals' | Lawmakers spar over actor's testimony | House Dems unveil renewable energy tax plan | Funding for conservation program passes Senate hurdle MORE (D-Minn.), who first asked GAO to probe Interior’s use of the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA) funds, called on the White House to take action.

“The Administration should now immediately report this violation and take corrective actions as required by law,” she said in a statement Thursday. “This should put the administration on notice that their illegal actions will not be tolerated.”

Responding to questions from McCollum in a January letter, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said he disagreed that the spending violated the law.

"While I appreciate that reasonable people can have differences of opinion on matters of law and policy, I do not believe the position ascribed to you that 'the Department of Interior is likely violating appropriations law,' can be supported by the text of the statute at hand or any other principle of appropriations law that would be overriding here," Bernhardt wrote.

He added: "In some instances, I know the laws we administer as well as I know the back of my own hand."

Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallSenate confirms Trump's nominee to lead FDA Overnight Defense: House passes compromise defense bill | Turkey sanctions advance in Senate over Trump objections | Top general says military won't be 'raping, burning and pillaging' after Trump pardons Senate panel advances Turkey sanctions bill despite Trump objections MORE (D-N.M.) said the GAO’s investigation proved that the Trump administration took an “unprecedented step of cannibalizing park fees to pay to keep parks open during the Trump government shutdown.”

He said there should be consequences.

“Their assurances at the time that their actions were legal have proven false, and there should be consequences for this violation. The American people pay these park fees to make improvements at our national parks — but instead the Trump administration illegally diverted them to limit the public relations fallout from its costly and unnecessary government shutdown,” Udall said in a statement.

The Interior spokeswoman pointed to a 2009 memorandum by the then Deputy Assistant Attorney General that ruled that "Legislative Branch agencies are not bound by GAO’s legal advice." 

The Trump administration kept more than 100 national parks open during the 35-day partial government shutdown by using money typically set aside for park maintenance projects and employing seasonal firefighters.

That move was met with pushback from lawmakers and conservationists who accused administration officials of misusing government appropriated funds. 

After the government fully reopened, Interior moved to reverse its decision to use the park recreation fees and instead replace the spending with congressionally appropriated funds.

Dan Smith, deputy director of NPS, told staff in a memo obtained by The Hill in February that the agency would use money from the spending bill Congress approved to end the shutdown to pay for those costs.

“We have confirmed with the Office of Management and Budget that the NPS can move obligations made during the appropriations lapse form the FLREA fee account and apply those obligations to the National Park Service annual operating account," Smith said, making reference to “rec fees” collected under the FLREA.

Later in May, Bernhardt authorized a new policy to pay full-time staff using the funds.

The GAO said Thursday that Interior must adjust its funding accounts to correct the violation and it must report the violation. Interior also has to explain its correction of the funds and name officials responsible for the violation.

“With this decision, we will consider such violations in the future to be knowing and willful violations of the Act,” the GAO said.

Updated at 6:49 p.m.