DOI Grants being examined… especially land acquisitions with LWCF

Spotty grant tracking draws watchdog’s fire

Michael Doyle, E&E News reporter

Published: Thursday, September 28, 2017

Some Interior Department officials are tussling with the Office of Inspector General over the department’s failure to standardize the tracking of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants used for land purchases.

The behind-the-scenes bureaucratic conflict, percolating for months, has resurfaced with a new IG assessment that’s explicitly intended to overcome resistance.

“We expand on and reinforce our [previous] findings to encourage the [department] to take corrective action,” the investigators said.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift indicated today that the department’s leadership hears what the Office of Inspector General has to say, while leaving uncertain what might happen as a result.

“The IG has looked into and found shortcomings on a number of aspects related to grants and land acquisitions,” Swift said. “This further supports the secretary’s directive for heightened due diligence on the grant process.”

In two documents made public late yesterday, the IG updated a critical study originally made public in early August.

The updated study issued this week noted that in fiscal 2014 and 2015, various Interior programs awarded 561 grants to purchase land valued at a total of about $574 million. The totals differed somewhat from the earlier report, but the critical management conclusions stayed the same (Greenwire, Sept. 6).

“We also found that the methods of tracking these purchases varied across programs, from bureau-maintained databases to reliance on ‘institutional knowledge,'” the investigators noted, adding that “without an adequate process in place to monitor funds used to purchase land, DOI is potentially exposed to significant risk of wasted funds.”

The inconsistent tracking lets some important information fall through the cracks, investigators warned. Only 122 of the 219 grantees surveyed had reported their land inventory to the awarding agency, as required.

As a fix, the investigators are urging the department’s Office of Acquisition and Property Management to standardize the tracking of land-purchase grants in a departmentwide tool, such as the department’s existing Financial and Business Management System.

The Office of Acquisition and Property Management disagrees.

“Rather than focusing on a new method for tracking grant awards, we believe it would be more useful to ensure that recipients are informed of the conditions under which land purchased with grant funds may be used,” the office stated in its official response.

In meetings with the IG, the property office representatives also “stated a concern that creating a tracking system for these types of purchases would be too costly,” investigators recounted this week.

The property office representatives have also questioned whether they have the regulatory authority to do what the IG recommends, leading to a highly technical dispute involving interpretations of the Code of Federal Regulations.

How the conflict gets resolved could depend on the future interaction of career Interior employees with a political leadership that’s still taking shape.

The Office of Acquisition and Property Management is overseen by Megan Olsen, the department’s senior procurement officer. Olsen is a career employee and member of the Senior Executive Service.

Olsen, in turn, reports to the assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, who is a political appointee. That position remains vacant, though maybe not for much longer (E&E DailyJuly 21).

Former Texas Comptroller Susan Combs is awaiting her Senate confirmation vote for the post, following her Aug. 3 approval by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Once in office, Combs will, among her other challenges, have the grant reporting issue to deal with.

“Given the problems reported in prior audits, such as the failure to meet the most basic requirements of appraisals … as well as the breadth of these types of awards, we are concerned that DOI is exposed to serious risk of wasted funds,” the IG warned.