Interior long planned for BLM relocation, but leasing cost concerns weren’t the driving factor

The Interior Department's inspector general said agency officials gave mostly accurate statements to Congress about its reasons for relocating employees at the ...

The Interior Department painted a mixed picture of its reasons for relocating some 300 employees of the Bureau of Land Management to Colorado and other western states to Congress, the agency’s inspector general determined Tuesday.

Though Interior had long planned to move BLM employees to the department’s main building or another federal facility, the costs of a new lease in Washington, D.C., weren’t the motivating factor for the recent relocation, the IG said.

The latest report from the Interior IG stemmed from a request from members of Congress, many of whom had expressed concerns with the BLM relocation and Interior’s motives for moving its employees out of Washington.

Specifically, lawmakers had questioned whether departmental officials had made false or misleading statements to Congress about BLM’s lease near the D.C. waterfront, which was due to expire in January 2021. In describing its rationale for BLM’s westward relocation, Interior had suggested it couldn’t renew the agency’s existing lease, because the new cost would exceed the General Services Administration’s preferred rate of $50 per rentable square foot.

“We determined that the department’s statements were accurate in one regard, but inaccurate in
another,” the IG said.

On one hand, Interior’s statements to Congress were accurate because the department had long planned to move the BLM workforce out of its existing space near the D.C. waterfront. The IG found plans that date back to the Obama administration in late 2016 and early 2017, which described Interior’s intention to consolidate BLM employees at the department’s main headquarters building or another federal facility. And based on those longstanding plans, Interior couldn’t renew the existing BLM lease because it hadn’t engaged with GSA to begin necessary negotiations with the landlord and inform Congress, the IG said.

Interior and GSA had spent several years discussing the upcoming expiration of the BLM lease. In May 2019, Susan Combs, the former assistant secretary for policy, management and budget, detailed the plan to move BLM employees to the main Interior building in a memo to department officials.

Moving BLM employees from the expiring leased space near the D.C. waterfront and relocating them to the main Interior building (MIB) would save the department $4 million a year and better utilize existing federal space, Combs had said.

“The evidence indicated that at some point, the department abandoned plans to move BLM employees into the [main Interior building] in favor of moving them to locations outside of Washington, DC.,” the IG said. “Combs told us that, while she was not involved in those discussions, she understood that not all of the BLM employees would fit in the MIB.”

But on the other hand, the department did give misleading statements about the costs of renewing the BLM lease in Washington, though the IG didn’t believe the statements were intentionally inaccurate.

The IG’s report describes several exchanges between Interior and GSA officials over the cost of BLM’s expiring lease. Ultimately, Interior officials could never definitively determine whether the cost of renewing the existing BLM lease would exceed the $50 per rentable square foot of space (RSF), the IG said.

“The available evidence indicates, however, that neither the GSA, Interior, nor the BLM conducted market research to determine what the lease rate would be,” the IG said. “In addition, the evidence indicated that GSA officials repeatedly stated that DOI officials could use $50 per rentable square foot as an estimate. None of the evidence indicates that GSA officials told DOI personnel that the rate would definitely be higher than $50 per RSF.”

Interior made inaccurate, “causal connections between the cost of the renewed lease and the BLM’s inability to renew that lease,” the IG said.

Ultimately, the IG concluded, the reason for the BLM relocation wasn’t because Interior officials knew the cost of renewing the agency’s existing lease would exceed a specific cost — but because the department had determined years ago that it would move employees to another space.

“We did not find evidence substantiating that Interior personnel inserted this language to intentionally mislead Congress or were otherwise acting in bad faith,” the IG said. “Instead, the evidence showed that a GSA official stated in an email to Interior officials that ‘the going market rate’ at the 20 M Street location was currently ‘$50/RSF or higher,’ and that this information morphed through multiple edits and authors — into the more definitive statements in the letters and testimony to Congress.”

The Interior Department saw the IG’s report as a referendum on its statements to Congress on the BLM relocation.

“It is clear that some politicians weaponized the BLM’s relocation,” Todd Willens, Interior chief of staff, said Monday in a response to the IG’s latest findings. “Their conduct is intimately tied to the creation of this report. Members of Congress are indeed entitled to their opinion and their motive, but they are not entitled to have merit when the facts do not support it. I respect and appreciate the mission of the OIG and trust that you will continue to look at your operations to ensure that taxpayer resources are focused on matters firmly outside the arena of policy-based inter-branch disputes.”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt formally established Grand Junction, Colorado, as the new BLM headquarters in mid-August. The department said the majority of BLM employees slated to work from the new headquarters would do so by the end of the month.

When asked how many BLM employees from Washington had made the reassignment to Grand Junction and how many jobs remained vacant, an Interior spokesman pointed to planned position totals for the agency.

About 60 BLM positions remain in Washington, while 40 senior leaders and other employee positions are in Grand Junction. Some 200 other positions were relocated to other western states.

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