Washington, DC – The U.S. Office of Special Counsel today filed charges that Department of Interior officials ignored internal warnings that a supposed “equivalent” value land exchange with the State of Utah would cost the federal treasury $100 million dollars. Prompted by a disclosure filed by PEER on behalf of a BLM Land Appraiser, Kent Wilkinson, OSC’s action triggers a formal review of how the Department of Interior handled the matter.
The land deal, negotiated between Utah Governor Michael Leavitt and Interiors’ Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management, Rebecca Watson, and her Deputy, Tom Fulton, would hand over 135,000 acres of federal land to the state of Utah in exchange for 108,000 acres of state land. The swap was touted as an exchange of equal value, but internal BLM documents show that the federal land is actually worth more than three times its reported value. During negotiations, BLM lands with known oil, gas, coal and tar sands deposits were counted as having “no or nominal mineral potential.”
Interior Secretary Gale Norton has 60 days to respond to OSC’s finding. The OSC finding focuses on Terry Catlin, a realty negotiator for BLM, but Mr. Wilkinson’s disclosure is supported by a raft of internal BLM e-mails and memoranda showing that Watson and Fulton approved the deal despite objections of seasoned agency appraisers and mineral specialists.
“This is not a case of one mid-level manager free-lancing. Terry Catlin was acting under orders,” stated PEER General Counsel Dan Meyer, who filed the disclosure with OSC.”Secretary Norton should answer the critical question: what did top Interior officials know and when did they know it?”
Legislation to codify the faulted land exchange is scheduled for a vote tomorrow by the full U.S. House of Representatives.
“This land exchange should not even receive further consideration by Congress until the investigation is complete-that land isn’t going to walk away,” said Janine Blaeloch of the Western Land Exchange Project.”Unfortunately, this Utah transaction is just the tip of the iceberg – at Interior, corrupt land deals are the norm rather than the exception.”