U.S. Special Counsel Directs Interior to Justify Legality and Purpose of Payments
Washington, DC — Backing charges by whistleblowers, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is ordering the Secretary of Interior to explain how funds earmarked to help drought-stressed Klamath Basin fish populations instead ended up in the hands of irrigators, according to a letter released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Secretary is charged with responding to the Special Counsel within 60 days.
The issue arises from at least $48 million dollars in contracts the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has with the Klamath Water and Power Agency (KWAPA). Two Bureau biologists became increasingly concerned about the legality of these payments and filed a whistleblower disclosure with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) through PEER. In a letter to the biologists dated June 26, an OSC attorney wrote:
“We have concluded that there is a substantial likelihood that the information that you provided to OSC discloses a violation of law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; and a gross waste of funds.”
The thrust of their disclosure is that Bureau funds provided to KWAPA intended “for the direct benefit of fish and wildlife habitat” were diverted to defray expenses of this association of Klamath Project irrigators, including their salaries, fringe benefits, office space, equipment and travel. Further, funds were also used in ways detrimental to Klamath Basin fish, such as pumping large amounts of groundwater to supply select irrigators during drought years until private wells went dry, thus spurring new and deeper wells to tap shrinking groundwater supplies. All of these expenditures were made without any apparent legal authority to do so.
“The Bureau of Reclamation allowed millions of taxpayer dollars to be used as a slush fund for favored irrigators,” stated PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein who filed the scientists’ disclosure. “It appears no one asked what the legal justification was for paying public funds to benefit a private association.”
These payments began with a 2008 Reclamation contract for a feasibility study on whether water marketing could increase Klamath water supplies for the benefit of fish and wildlife. That initial five-year contract was amended 17 times and ultimately extended through 2023, at a cost several times the original estimate. The feasibility study was never completed.
The Office of Special Counsel is a whistleblower protection agency charged with, among other things, reviewing federal employee reports of wrongdoing and determining whether they evidence a “substantial likelihood of validity.” It has made such a finding in this case. Now, by law the Special Counsel has the power to direct the Secretary of Interior to conduct a formal investigation into these violations of law as well as gross waste and mismanagement. The Secretary’s report is due back in 60 days.
The whistleblowers may review and comment on the final official response. At that point, the Special Counsel makes an independent decision as to whether the agency response is complete and reasonable, transmitting those findings to the President and Congress. If the violations are confirmed it could result in reimbursement of unauthorized payments as well as discipline of responsible Reclamation officials.
The Klamath Project, which the Bureau operates, constitutes the principal water works in Northern California and southern Oregon providing water from Upper Klamath Lake and Klamath River to more than 200,000 acres of cropland. In recent years, this watershed has been crippled by a series of droughts.