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Following Request from Hirono and Grijalva, GAO Report Confirms Political Interference in Trump Department of the Interior Grant Review Process

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI), member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, applauded the release of a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommending changes to the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) competitive grant making process in light of inconsistencies and irregularities found in multiple DOI bureaus’ grant review processes during the Trump Administration. Sen. Hirono and Chairman Grijalva first requested GAO investigate DOI’s grant and cooperative agreement review process in February 2020 after media reports of potential political interference in DOI-funded studies on health effects of mountaintop removal mining and the inspection program for offshore oil and gas production.

“Federal grants should be awarded to applicants best-qualified to make use of them based on clearly laid out criteria,” said Senator Hirono. “This report is further proof that during the Trump Administration, politics often took priority over science, harming grant applicants and delaying their important work. I’m glad the Interior Department has agreed with the recommendations in this report, which will help ensure that future administrations award grants based solely on the merits of the application. I thank Chairman Grijalva for his partnership in this effort and GAO for conducting a thorough review that will help DOI better protect our environment and support federal grantees.”

“This report confirms what we suspected and the Trump administration denied: disgraced former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke hired an unqualified football buddy to kill highly-ranked grant applications that he didn’t like. In textbook Trump fashion, Zinke’s buddy documented almost none of it so he wouldn’t have to defend his indefensible decisions to the American people. He killed jobs, educational opportunities for young people, and efforts to protect endangered species and address climate change,” said Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva, House Committee on Natural Resources.

The report found that during the Trump Administration, political appointees in certain DOI bureaus, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), applied undue scrutiny to certain applications. “According to FWS officials, it appeared that the Senior Advisor, in particular, closely scrutinized applications focused on certain topics, such as endangered species and climate change, rather than considering the merit of individual grant applications or program policy factors, such as leveraging resources between similar programs,” the report reads.

In light of these findings, GAO made two recommendations to better standardize the grant making process at DOI. Specifically, the GAO report recommends that:

  1. The Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) should issue a memorandum reinforcing the need for grant programs to include criteria and weights in funding announcements and evaluate applications using those standards; and
  2. Interior should develop a policy to ensure that officials document the rationale for grant award decisions.

The full GAO report is available here.