To turn a phrase, there are lies, damn lies, and the words of federal bureaucrats. It’s not amazing that U.S. officials sometimes bend the truth to promote their own individual or institutional agendas. What does set jaws dropping is the extent to which some in Washington simply will lie through their teeth to advance their own ends and, even worse, get away with it.
Since Bill Clinton put a 1990s face on the deceit of Richard Nixon nearly a generation earlier, lower-level functionaries have followed these high-level examples. While Bush appointees so far appear largely honest, they unfortunately have little stomach for disciplining the powerful and deceptive.
According to the Interior Department Inspector General Michael Anderson — former acting head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs — signed papers conferring federal tribal status on the Duwamish Indians while sitting in his car outside interior’s headquarters, from which a loyal staffer trotted out the appropriate documents. Why such odd behavior? This happened January 22, 2001, two days after the Clinton administration ended and the Bush administration began. Nonetheless, these forms were backdated to January 19, the last full day of the Clinton era.
The Bush administration undid this skullduggery last September, but Anderson suffered no consequences for impersonating a federal official. The justice department, seemingly more interested in “setting a new tone in Washington” than in enforcing the law, chose not to prosecute Anderson even though he signed these papers as a private citizen. He later joined a law firm that helps Indians secure federal tribal recognition, the ante for casino licenses and other benefits.
The General Accounting Office determined last month that researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and local scientists submitted “unauthorized hair samples” in 1999 and fall 2000 while surveying endangered Canada lynx in Washington state’s national forests. Rather than wild specimens, these hairs were from a stuffed bobcat and a captive lynx. The scientists claimed they were testing an outside laboratory’s accuracy. However, in a March 1 memo to Secretary Gale Norton, Interior IG Earl Devaney, said he believes that “parts of the story told by the FWS biologists involved stretch credulity.” He also criticized the agency’s “cultural bias against holding employees accountable for their behavior” and called for “more meaningful punishment for those previously counseled.” So far, one FWS scientist concurrently received a cash award while under scrutiny. Meanwhile, the USFS personnel have endured “verbal counseling.”
“Had the fraud not been exposed,” says James M. Taylor of Chicago’s free-market Heartland Institute, the improper lynx hairs could have justified “bans on skiing, snowmobiling, driving, logging and livestock grazing.”
Federal judge Lawrence Margolis ruled that USFS officials knowingly used false spotted owl population data to trigger the cancellation of four logging sales. Judge Margolis called USFS’s behavior “arbitrary, capricious and without rational basis.” As the Washington Times reported, the federal government agreed in March to compensate the Wetsel-Oviatt Lumber Company $9.5 million for these canceled sales.
USFS also got caught misleading Congress when it reported in 2000 that 920 million people had visited America’s national forests. Actually, there were only 209 million visitors. Pleading dyslexia, the USFS called this a typo. How convenient. High visitor numbers are used to support federal land grabs and bigger USFS budgets. Apparently, no one has suffered for cooking the federal guest book.
“People may not see the significance of falsifying an endangered species biological survey,” Rep. Richard Pombo (R., Calif.) tells me. “But the result of that is a severe impact on local economies when an area is declared habitat…As timber sales are canceled, not only do the timber companies go out of business, but the small businesses associated with logging go out of business as well.”
Americans can and should debate the proper mixture of development and preservation on federal lands and even ponder the pros and cons of Indian gambling. But these discussions and subsequent decisions should be based on facts, not fraud. That is not asking too much, nor is it unreasonable to expect that those who willfully lie to the taxpayers to further their private or political causes face dismissal and even prosecution. Attorney General Ashcroft, do your duty.