WASHINGTON – A congressional watchdog agency has concluded the Trump administration broke federal law by shuffling around money to maintain some national parks during the partial government shutdown that ended in January.
The sharply worded finding issued late Thursday by the Government Accountability Office – which the administration dismissed by saying its actions were legal – centered on the Interior Department’s decision to divert money dedicated for big-ticket maintenance projects for day-to-day upkeep such as trash collection and bathroom sanitation at several high-profile national parks last winter.
The violation was made worse because Interior officials knew what they were doing as they discussed replenishing the maintenance account once Congress voted to fully reopen the government, GAO General Counsel Thomas H. Armstrong wrote in the 17-page letter to lawmakers who had asked for the inquiry.
Armstrong said the action by Interior officials “tears at the very fabric of Congress’s constitutional power of the purse,” calling it “an abuse of the trust Congress placed in Interior.”
“Congress has expressed its prerogatives through laws that it enacted through the process set forth in the Constitution,” Armstrong wrote. “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. Interior cannot select which restraints apply to its appropriations and when these restraints apply.”
Armstrong said Interior officials must officially report the violation, adjust its accounts to correct the problem, identify officials responsible, and explain how it will prevent future violations.
The decision to keep the parks clean and maintained came during a 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government which included the National Park Service. Some parks were completely closed but others remained accessible as states and local non-profit organizations stepped in to provide the services that the Park Service could not.
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But in early January, as the shutdown was entering its third week, some of the nation’s most visited parks were dealing with overflowing trash and human waste, vandalism and looting. At that point, then-Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, after consulting with department lawyers, decided to use revenues from entrance, camping, parking and other fees collected from park visitors for day-to-day upkeep.
“We are taking this extraordinary step to ensure that parks are protected, and that visitors can continue to access parks with limited basic services,” read a National Park Service statement issued at the time.
Under the Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act (FLREA), most of those revenues must be spent on deferred maintenance projects at the parks where the fees were collected, Armstrong wrote. The diversion of funds came as the park system is facing a maintenance backlog approaching $12 billion.
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The GAO letter does not mention specific parks or the amount of money involved. But the National Parks Conservation Association, a non-profit organization that supports park activities, said about $10 million of fee money was improperly diverted to pay for day-to-day maintenance.
The Park Service disputed the GAO’s finding in a statement it tweeted and shared with reporters.
“The National Park Service has reviewed the GAO opinion on the use of FLREA funds during the lapse in appropriations and disagrees with its analysis,” the statement read. “For many years FLREA funds have been used to keep parks accessible clean and safe. This was not only within our lawful authority, it was our responsibility.”
Democratic lawmakers, who had requested the GAO inquiry, said Bernhardt (who was confirmed in April as the full-time secretary) must comply with the finding.
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“Secretary Bernhardt owes Congress and the American people the legally-required plan for how they will remedy the damage caused by misappropriating funds,” read a statement from House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., and Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the Interior Department.
Theresa Pierno, president and CEO for the National Parks Conservation Association, said the agency’s misuse of funds was a “shell game” that not only broke federal law but also compromised the parks.
“This jeopardized the parks themselves, and all who visited them,” Pierno said “The Department of Interior must right this wrong and put guidelines in place to ensure this never happens again. Our national parks, and all who visit them, deserve nothing less.”