Senate Democrats say the Interior Department is not answering questions about delays in the issuing of federal grants, a move they contend is holding up money used to fund conservation programs.
“DOI has yet to explain why it hired a high school football teammate of Secretary Zinke’s, who seems to have no relevant experience, to oversee the grant review process instead of improving financial management controls through department experts and career officials,” said Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, who led a group of 11 senators in the Democratic Conference in a June 12 letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
A senior Interior official wrote to the senators last week that the department was targeting the grant-making process for “increased scrutiny.”
But the heightened review of federal grants is motivated by a “litany of abuses” uncovered in the grants process, not by politics, Scott Cameron, an acting assistant secretary, told the senators.
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‘Politicizing’ the process
To Duckworth, the scrutiny seems tinged with a political agenda. She said the department failed to address her concerns and is “politicizing the federal grant making process” by putting Steve Howke, a political appointee, in charge of reviewing grants.
The Interior Department’s response did not address most of the senators’ questions about the new review process, including which grants are subject to the heightened scrutiny, how many of the grants that fell under scrutiny have since been approved, and how long the review process will take for organizations still waiting on grants.
The senators had raised concerns that the Interior Department was improperly withholding grants from conservation groups for political reasons. Their letter to Zinke came after hearing from several dozen groups in their states who said they had not received the grants they were expecting for conservation-related programs.
Duckworth’s office discovered at least eight organizations who had not received such grants and other senators heard from dozens more, a member of her staff said. As recently as last week, all the groups had still not received their grants.
Cameron said the Interior inspector general’s office found $88 million in grants over the last five years was questionable — less than 2 percent of the department’s total grant payments.
After the review found mishandling of grant money, it tasked Howke with helping to set “clear expectations and develop an organized plan” for handling financial assistance programs, Cameron said.
Howke was charged with personally reviewing all grants larger than $50,000 before they can receive approval, according to a memo sent by Cameron to Interior staff in December. The memo also said the increased scrutiny would ensure grants “better align with the Secretary’s priorities,” leading critics to speculate that the reviews were driven by a political agenda.
Cameron did not address how long the review process would take or how much grant funding is still being withheld. The late passage of this year’s federal spending bill, which allocated the Interior Department’s budget, may have contributed to delays, he said.
“As indicated in many of the IG reports, when the focus is on getting money out quickly, waste, fraud and abuse has a higher probability of occurring,” he wrote.
Cameron declined a request for comment Thursday and the Interior Department did not directly answer questions about the details of the review process.
The Trump administration is “dedicated to responsibly using taxpayer dollars and that includes the billions of dollars in grants that are doled out by the Department of the Interior,” department spokeswoman Heather Swift said.
The Democratic senators say they’ve been hearing from groups about the grant delays over a period of months. The organizations had become accustomed to getting the grants, which they relied on to fund conservation projects, including paying students for summer internships.
“If the political appointees are unable to administer the Department’s grants in a timely manner, then Secretary Zinke should appoint career experts who can,” Duckworth said.