Recusal Is Not an Excusal: William Pendley and Conflicts of Interest at the BLM

October 4, 2019 | 7:19 am
Photo: House Natural Resources Committee/YouTube
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

This week, the Department of the Interior extended the appointment of William Perry Pendley, acting director of the Bureau of Land Management, until after the first of next year.

Pendley’s qualifications and objectivity have been called into question because of his virulently anti-government efforts in the past, including advocating to sell off public lands. Notably, he was previously president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative group advocating for federal land selloff and generally opposed to the federal land policy Pendley is now in charge of.  As the BLM acting director, Pendley is now responsible for the management of those public lands he wants sold, which cover huge areas of the United States.

I have previously cataloged Trump appointees as conflicted, opposed, or unqualified. The conflicted are those that have deep conflicts of interest in much of the work of the agencies they are leading, as does Mr. Pendley. The opposed are those who are fundamentally opposed to the mission of the agency they are leading, as Mr. Pendley seems to be.  And unqualified are those without the credentials and experience, as I would argue Mr. Pendley is. A trifecta!  Nice work Secretary Bernhardt.

Conflicted leadership and recusal

Acting Director Pendley recently announced he would recuse himself from any matters related to nearly 60 former clients he represented in the past. They include major energy and oil companies, the National Mining Association, and several state farm bureaus. All of them have major interests and activities on federal lands that are affected by BLM actions and regulations.

But what does recusal really mean? The way Pendley talks about it seems to suggest that all he needs to do is stop talking to his former clients for a period of two years. But that’s not really it. In my previous position in the federal government as a senior executive service professional, recusal meant steering clear of anything that might appear to affect my impartiality. It wasn’t just about not contacting or talking with former or prospective clients, it was also about not working on issues that might affect those clients.

Department of the Interior guidelines require DOI employees to  “avoid a conflict of interest or the appearance of a conflict of interest.” And to recuse when such a conflict or appearance of conflict exists with the employee’s job duties and financial interests. That includes future employment, business or personal relationships, and outside activities. The guidelines recommend that a gatekeeper be appointed to screen phone calls, correspondence, and all communications to see if the employee needs to recuse themselves.

So pardon me for asking, but how the heck can the acting director of the BLM do his job if he fully recuses from all issues that might impact his former clients, future employment, or future activities?  He has already listed nearly 60 former major clients—a staggering number of companies, all of whom work on BLM lands.

This isn’t about agreement or disagreement with Pendley’s previous policy positions. It’s about the fact that he can’t be the right person for the job given his huge list of acknowledged conflicts of interest.

Conflicts through and through Interior

Unfortunately, Interior Secretary Bernhardt has exactly the same problem as his acting BLM director. He has worked broadly with many clients lobbying for government action, suing the government, and representing their interest in many ways. He has a recusal list too.  But that hasn’t stopped him from working on many matters that affect his former clients.

It isn’t enough to have a list that you carry around. Recusal is not an excuse so you can still fill the job minus a few phone calls. It is taking action to avoid conflicts or the appearance of conflicts. That isn’t happening with Bernhardt nor the acting BLM chief.

William Pendley unfortunately fits into the broader pattern of this administration sidelining science and “undermining the norms that safeguard objective research.” One of those norms is recusal.

Pendley is simply inappropriate to lead the Bureau of Land Management on an acting basis or otherwise. He has too many conflicts of interest to do the job.  If he properly recused himself, he would no longer be involved in most of the issues BLM is charged to cover and he should resign. In the meantime there is no way he should be making policy or resource commitments.

Our public lands are for all the people. We deserve a BLM chief who can spend all their time working for us.