Lawmakers Call For Independent Probe Of Financial Abuse In Field Offices

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A day after the Bureau of Land Management confirmed that an internal probe of employee credit card abuses and possible time-card fraud had spread to field offices in several states, the agency’s congressional overseers are stepping up their calls for independent investigations.

Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee on public lands, promised that Congress would soon be examining financial abuses discovered in BLM field offices in Utah, Idaho and other states.

BLM has offered to brief the committee on the issue, but no decision has yet been made over whether an oversight hearing will be scheduled.

A Bishop spokeswoman said today that because some of abuses have resulted in ongoing criminal investigation, there are “some unique sensitivities” that come with holding formal oversight hearings.

“A hearing isn’t ruled out, but it may only be one tool” to get answers, the spokeswoman said.

Another tool is a formal investigation by the Interior Department’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall.

After being questioned by Bishop about recent news reports concerning the misuse of funds by employees, BLM Deputy Director Mike Pool acknowledged yesterday that the agency started detecting financial irregularities at field offices in 2010.

At least two former BLM employees in Utah have pleaded guilty to theft and embezzlement federal charges as a result of Pool’s internal review and BLM confirmed that a third employee in Idaho is also under investigation.

But Rep. RaГєl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who serves as ranking member of lands subcommittee, said today that Pool’s probe — which only came to light after a Feb. 15 email from the BLM deputy director about the investigation surfaced in the Utah press — should not take the place of a formal inspector general review.

Pool said yesterday that during the course of his review, he had “consulted with the inspector general’s office,” along with internal legal staff and the Justice Department.

“In effect, we’ve applied a full-court press to get to the bottom line and detect how far and wide this problem may be, and I am holding people accountable,” he said.

But BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said he’s not aware of a separate inspector general probe.

However, “the fact that [Pool’s] email went to the state directors on February 15th tells you that we’re definitely on top of this and expect to unearth more information,” Gorey said.

Grijalva said an inspector general’s probe might be in order.

“I think doing an internal [investigation] is appropriate, but if we’re talking about abuse and potentially illegal activities in the use of those credit cards, then I think the inspector general … should be on top of it and formally asked” to get involved, he said.

“We have to make sure that the motivations in all of this is pure,” he said. “We’re not on a witch hunt. … We’re out to root out any abuses and the individuals responsible, and I think the best vehicle is the inspector general due to the independence of that office by law.”

A spokesman for Kendall’s office could not be reached for comment.

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