Congress Investigates MacDonald's Farm

WASHINGTON, DC, May 21, 2007 (ENS) - Two senior House Democrats launched an inquiry today into reports that a Bush political appointee may have improperly removed a California fish from a list of threatened species in order to protect her own financial interests.

Julie MacDonald, who resigned this month as Interior Department deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, was actively involved in removing the Sacramento splittail fish from the federal threatened and endangered species list at the same time that she was profiting from her ownership of a farm that lies within the habitat area of the threatened fish, according to an investigative report published Sunday by the "Contra Costa Times" newspaper.

MacDonald's financial disclosure statement shows that she earns as much as $1 million per year from her ownership of the 80 acre active farm in Dixon, California.

Federal law bars federal employees from participating in decisions on matters in which they have a personal financial interest.

Agricultural area just off the Interstate 80 near Dixon, California (Photo courtesy Ken Lund)
The Sacramento splittail, a small fish found only in California's Central Valley, depends on floodplain habitat and has been described by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as facing "potential threats from habitat loss."

Today, Representatives George Miller of California and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, wrote to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne requesting a full accounting of MacDonald's role in the Sacramento splittail decision.

Miller and Rahall asked for an explanation of her apparent conflict of interest, and a thorough review of the science underlying the decision to remove the Sacramento splittail from the threatened species list.

"It looks like another Bush administration official was protecting her own bottom line instead of protecting the public interest," said Miller, a senior member and former chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and a long-time proponent of the Endangered Species Act and Bay-Delta fish and wildlife issues.

"This news raises serious questions about the integrity of the Interior Department and its policy decisions," Miller said.

Rahall, who has served on the Natural Resources Committee since 1976 and became its chairman in January, said, "Time and again, this administration has demonstrated a complete disregard for scientists and their work."

"Political appointees at the Interior Department have been allowed to overrule biologists and to work more closely with special interests than with their own staff. The Interior Department must explain its deputy assistant secretary's actions in this very troubling case, which is apparently the latest in a long line of efforts to undercut species recovery."

The Sacramento splittail has been the subject of litigation and controversy since 1999. (Photo by Tina Swanson courtesy USFWS)
MacDonald resigned earlier the month following a scathing Inspector General report charging her with leaking sensitive documents to industry lobbyists, browbeating U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists, and illegally overturning scientific recommendations in order to squelch protections for endangered species.

The inquiry launched by Miller and Rahall comes two weeks after a May 9 Committee hearing at which Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett was questioned about recent controversies in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.

Scarlett's prepared testimony did not mention a report by the Department's Inspector General on an investigation into MacDonald, nor did her testimony indicate awareness of the serious consequences of MacDonald's actions.

In the course of the hearing, Scarlett affirmed that "where there is scientific manipulation, we want to correct that," but no specifics were provided.

MacDonald resigned from the Interior Department just one week before Scarlett testified.

Also today, the Center for Biological Diversity released memos obtained through the Freedom of Information Act further implicating MacDonald in what Policy Director Kieran Suckling called "improper and potentially criminal actions."

On January 27, 2005, industry lobbyist and attorney Steven Quarles emailed MacDonald, requesting a meeting, in his own words, to "secure easy 'yeses' to outrageous requests."

Later in the day, Quarles emailed MacDonald's secretary, asking her to pass a message on to MacDonald to "just go in and erase all those back emails but I must admit I suspect some of them are mine ... and, of course, THEY are critically important."


Attorney Steven Quarles is co-chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Group of the Washington, DC law firm of Crowell & Moring LLP. (Photo courtesy Crowell & Moring)
Quarles' practice includes counseling, litigation and legislative representation for a wide range of forest products, mining, agricultural and land development associations and companies, state and local governments, and land trusts.

If MacDonald deleted the emails as requested, she may have violated federal laws prohibiting the deletion of government emails. Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, is currently being investigated for similar charges.

In a second memo dated May 5, 2005, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists reveal that the Assistant Secretary of Interior's Office, from which MacDonald oversaw the Fish and Wildlife Service, issued a secret policy forcing the Service to ignore scientific information supporting petitions to add species to the federal endangered species List.

The policy required the Service to only divulge information which could be used to refute listing petitions, while ignoring supporting information.

The policy, which was never made public, violates the Endangered Species Act requirement to use all the best available scientific information which making listing decisions.

Suckling says this secret policy was used by the Fish and Wildlife Service to deny a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity to retain the desert nesting bald eagle on the endangered species list when the rest of the bald eagle species is removed from the list on June 29, 2007.


Arizona bald eagle (Photo courtesy Maricopa Audubon Society)
The agency's denial states that it has no information supporting the Center for Biological Diversity's petition when, in fact, its own scientists, its own seven member scientific peer review panel, and the former head of the Arizona bald eagle recovery program all recommended to the agency to keep the desert eagle on the list.

The only opponents to retaining protection for the desert eagle were top level agency bureaucrats.

"Julie MacDonald is gone from office, but her legacy of lawlessness lives on within the Department of Interior," said Suckling. "Her abusive policies and illegal decisions are still in place. The Department of Interior will not regain credibility until her policies and decisions are withdrawn."

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Maricopa Audubon Society filed suit in January challenging the Bush administration's suppression of scientific reports concluding that the Arizona bald eagle should remain on the endangered species list.

The suit seeks an injunction barring the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from removing the Arizona eagle from the endangered list and requiring it to incorporate the scientific studies in its management plans.