Interior sued over temporary appointments of top officials

Interior sued over temporary appointments of top officials
© Courtesy Department of Interior

Environmentalists on Monday sued the Interior Department over its temporary appointments of top officials to positions that typically require a Senate confirmation. 

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Western Watersheds Project objected to the continued appointments of the acting leaders of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Park Service (NPS). 

The groups argue that the repeated tenure extensions of William Perry Pendley and David Vela are unconstitutional and claim that neither is qualified to lead their respective agency. 

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Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last week extended the tenures of Pendley and Vela by one month. Pendley was first appointed in July and Vela was first appointed in September. 

The May 5 order that prolonged their tenures stated that their appointments are to “vacant non-career positions during the Presidential transition pending Senate-confirmation of new non-career officials.”

The lawsuit, however, states that the presidential transition “is long past” and notes that “there are no nominees pending for Senate confirmation for either the BLM or NPS Director.”

“These serial, ‘temporary’ appointments for Pendley to head the nation’s largest public lands agency are not only irresponsible but illegal, as well,” said a statement from Erik Molvar, the executive director of Western Watersheds Project. 

“William Perry Pendley has little chance of surviving the scrutiny of a Senate confirmation process, as he has been a public lands extremist, dedicated to selling off public lands or handing over public resources to mineral and livestock industries throughout his career,” he added. 

Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson pushed back on the lawsuit, telling The Hill in a statement that it was “baseless.”

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“As we continue to address this national emergency, these special interest groups would rather seek to divert critical taxpayer resources on a baseless lawsuit and attempt to remove the leaders of critical government bureaus,” Swanson said. “Mr. Pendley and Mr. Vela are providing crucial leadership, and the Department is grateful for their service.” 

Pendley has been a particularly controversial pick to lead the BLM, which manages the nation’s public lands, as he has previously advocated for selling federal lands. 

PEER senior counsel Peter Jenkins told The Hill in an email that the suit was being filed now since both Vela and Pendley have been in their roles for longer than the 210 days stipulated by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. 

The suit follows a threat from the groups to sue last month. 

This is not the first time that outside groups have sued in the hopes of removing an appointed Trump administration official. Earlier this year, a judge ruled that Ken Cuccinelli was unlawfully appointed to lead the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency following a lawsuit.