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Pendley order leaving himself in charge of BLM sidesteps top career official

Pendley order leaving himself in charge of BLM sidesteps top career official
© Courtesy Department of Interior

The latest order keeping the controversial head of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in his job after his nomination unraveled is the latest example of how political appointees are shutting out career officials, according to former employees and other critics.

The White House earlier this month pledged to withdraw acting Director William Perry Pendley’s nomination amid a flood of opposition from Democrats and conservation groups citing his history fighting federal ownership of public lands.

Pendley, who has been in the job over a year, remains the de facto head of BLM pursuant to succession orders that he himself signed. Legal experts have said he lacks the authority to take that action.

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The succession orders also sidestep the BLM’s department manual, which states that its top career official should lead BLM in the absence of a director.

The BLM’s director position has been vacant for the entirety of the Trump administration. The top two officials below BLM director are deputy director for operations, the top career role in BLM now held by Michael Nedd, and deputy director for policy and programs, a role for political appointees currently filled by Pendley. 

It’s Nedd’s role that BLM’s manual specifies should take over when there is not a Senate-confirmed director in place.

“In the absence of the director, the deputy director, operations is the first assistant and acts as the director,” the manual states.

Critics say the move is all about preserving Pendley’s role, even at a time when he likely could not get the 51 votes needed to be confirmed in the Senate — even with the GOP holding a majority.

“At the end of the day, it's about putting Perry Pendley in charge instead of a career person,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group.

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Weiss sees it as part of a broader trend of centralizing land management decisions within the top ranks of the Department of the Interior, particularly in the office of Secretary David Bernhardt.

“He’s centralized all decisionmaking authority in his office in D.C. so no land management decisions can be made by career officials that know what they're doing.”

Interior said the succession orders that place Pendley in charge instead of Nedd are used “to ensure operational integrity in the absence of certain officials. Having the president’s appointees run the department is required by the Constitution, which vests executive powers in the duly elected representative of the people.”

Critics, however, say Interior is skirting the Constitution by failing to get Senate confirmation for Pendley.

Ray Brady, a former BLM employee now with the Public Lands Foundation, a retiree group for the agency, said the intent of the manual is to “place experienced career professionals in that senior position if the director is not available, including if the position is vacant.”

“Why bypass senior career leaders to place a political person in charge? In my mind that is why the department manual is written that way,” he said, adding that Pendley signing a memo to put himself in charge “appears to be somewhat a conflict of interest.”

Similar legal issues have posed problems in other agencies. The Government Accountability Office recently found several Department of Homeland Security officials were improperly serving in their roles after being appointed by an official not listed in DHS's out of date succession orders. BLM's succession marks another departure from the way things were done in the past, said Steve Ellis, who retired from the top career-level position in 2016.

The latest succession order places the assistant director for energy and minerals as No. 3 on the list but doesn’t include any of the other assistant directors.

Ellis said under the Obama administration, the succession order included both the assistant director for energy and minerals and the assistant director for all other resources.

The latest order, he said, shows the importance the Trump administration places on oil and gas development.

“They definitely have a fossil fuel extraction lean in terms of their mission for the BLM,” he said. “BLM is a multiple use agency by law, but they’re tilting it way over to fossil fuels. It’s not balanced right now.”

He said the succession order also reflects another new reality: many of the top career officials are no longer in Washington. 

BLM has moved its headquarters to Grand Junction, Colo., leaving only 61 of its employees in Washington. Nedd’s position is slated for Grand Junction, while Pendley’s remains in D.C.

Many of the positions now in Grand Junction were previously in D.C. “so they can be in the bubble, they can talk with Interior and Congress and the Office of Management and Budget,” Ellis said. 

“But they’re not there anymore. They’re in Grand Junction I guess."