Trump Admin Braces for New Whistleblower Controversy

A newly-reported whistleblower complaint could spell a new round of trouble for the Trump administration—this time on the subject of environmental protection.

On October 4, 2019, a five-year veteran employee with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) filed “a sweeping whistleblower complaint” which was subsequently obtained by Politico and Type Investigations. The allegations contained in that complaint are shocking and, if true, reveal a newfound culture of lawlessness and exploitation of public lands in service of hardly-masked profit and greed.

The outlets’ joint reporting notes:

[T]he Battle Mountain [BLM] office [in Nevada] has repeatedly disregarded its own environmental rules and regulations to fast-track permits on public land. The historic antipathy toward federal oversight common to this region,combined with a presidential administration that has announced its hostility to decades of environmental law, has left public lands especially vulnerable.

This time the whistleblower has come forward publicly. His name is Dan Patterson and he’s one of the limited environmental protection specialists who works in the Western region. His complaint details a BLM rife with abusive and profit-oriented practices which, he claims, also happen to run afoul of internal agency rules and federal law.

Per the Patterson complaint:

This…is more than disagreement with the decisions of his superiors, but stems from a sincere belief that the laws of the United States are being disregarded for the professional expediency of his superiors and the benefit of private parties, and that a culture of lawlessness has been engendered.

Specifically, Patterson alleges that numerous BLM functionaries and officials operating under the authority and direction of infamous BLM Director and documented anti-environmental protection zealot William Perry Pendley have ignored their basic obligations under the landmark National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) which was signed into law in 1970 by Richard Nixon.

NEPA is the statutory backbone of all U.S. environmental protection laws and has been credited with several improvements in environmental protection, preservation, restoration and cleanup in the decades since its passage by the liberal Congress and strong support for its implementation by the environmentally-aware Nixon administration.

But Republican Party support for a clean and well-regulated environment has consistently flagged since then. The administration of Ronald Reagan was openly hostile to almost all U.S. environmental protection laws and internal agency rules—and stacked U.S. environmental agencies with anti-regulation hardliners as well as individuals culled from the regulated polluting industries themselves.

Since then, most presidential administrations—Democrat and Republican—have followed Reagan’s lead and the bipartisan consensus has consistently resulted in the phenomenon known to scholars as “regulatory capture.”

The Trump administration’s selection of Pendley to oversee BLM is an extreme example of the basic anti-environmentalism spanning both political parties but also the logical extension of embracing the idea that the regulated should serve as regulators.

A recent profile of Pendley by The New Republic notes that the BLM director spent most of his professional life working for a right-wing ideological group directly opposed to the concept of environmental regulation, protection and conservation agencies—including BLM itself.

From Christopher Ketcham’s article:

To understand Pendley’s worldview, you have to understand the Mountain States Legal Foundation, the right-wing nonprofit law firm in Colorado he honchoed for 30 years as president and chief legal counsel. The MSLF was founded in 1977 with money from Joseph Coors, the hard-right Colorado beer magnate, to counter what was perceived in the 1970s as the rising influence of public-interest environmental law firms…MSLF’s real goal, as the roster of its funders reveals, is the warping of public lands policy to benefit private extractive interests. Its big-money donors have included oil, gas, timber, and mining corporations, notably ExxonMobil, Texaco, and Phillips Petroleum.

And, since taking office, Pendley has stayed true to his roots. Since taking office, Pendley has overseen a massive boom in petrochemical permitting, issued myriad and controversial mining permits, ignored endangered species concerns, fired several career public servants dedicated to upholding the agency’s mission, moved to ingratiate his agency with industry leaders and told several local right-wing sheriffs to effectively ignore his own agents.

Patterson claims that Trump’s BLM under Pendley has approved “far more development on public lands than the agency could ever monitor or enforce. And that’s something everybody should be concerned about.”

The whistleblower is now sounding a lonely alarm—adding mountains of colorable legal claims to the stockpile of political complaints long leveled against Pendley by his critics.

Again, Adam Federman’s report:

[Patterson claims Pendley] approved mines and drilling without adequate review, turning the region into a “clearinghouse for federal permits”; and taken personnel off mining inspections in order to expedite development. In one case, according to the complaint, a mining engineer was removed from the review of a high priority open pit gold mine after making a recommendation to mitigate the long-term effects of toxic wastewater, which the company opposed because of cost. In another case, a group of well-connected families had been allowed to build recreational cabins on public land under the guise that they are actively mining.

And, add into the mix a couple claims of potential retaliation as well. Patterson says that once he started asking questions, his access to agency materials was unlawfully limited by a Pendley apparatchik, that he was suspended from work and then taken off certain projects.

“I feel like I’ve been kind of run out of town,” Patterson told Federman.

[image via Drew Angerer/Getty Images]

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