Probes find interference, bias by former Interior official

WASHINGTON — Julie A. MacDonald entered the Bush administration ready for war. She left it badly wounded, a case study in how political influence can backfire.

A civil engineer from California's Sacramento Valley, MacDonald served five tumultuous years as a top Interior Department official handling endangered species issues. She left in May, but her legacy still shades a department that's endured mounting controversy.

"I worked there for 34 years," former Fish and Wildlife Service chief spokeswoman Megan Durham said Wednesday, "and I never saw a political appointee who worked like she did."

Every administration pits civil service and expertise against political loyalty. White Houses want action, while bureaucracies lumber along. In the Bush administration, this traditional tension repeatedly has involved the environmental and public land regulations that conservatives loathe.

Sometimes, the cops get called and careers end badly.

The Interior Department's former deputy secretary, one-time coal industry lobbyist Steven Griles, pleaded guilty earlier this year to obstruction of justice charges in connection with the investigation of former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He was sentenced to 10 months in prison.

MacDonald was the subject of two Interior Department Office of Inspector General investigations. The first, completed earlier this year, found that she'd "interfered" with endangered species decision-making despite having "no formal background in natural sciences."

As deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, MacDonald had a heavy hand in how 607 animal species and 744 plant species were protected under federal law. California, Florida, Texas and Hawaii lead the nation in the number of protected species.

The second investigation, finished this week, concluded that MacDonald had a potential conflict of interest when she oversaw an endangered species decision that could affect her Yolo County property in California.

MacDonald's farm is in an area favored by the Sacramento splittail, a little silver fish formerly protected as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. In 2003, following an internal debate about the silvertail population, the Fish and Wildlife Service made the rare decision to withdraw it from the protected list.

Investigators concluded that MacDonald didn't make the decision, but they noted that she made "over 500 changes" in one of the key documents used to justify the decision.

"She should have recused herself," the Office of Inspector General's 10-page report said, adding that the information was forwarded to federal prosecutors in August and that they "declined to open a case for prosecution."

The latest investigation was first reported by the Contra Costa Times.

MacDonald, who along with her husband owns a farm near the town of Dixon, couldn't be reached to comment Wednesday. Her Interior Department actions, though, will continue drawing attention for months or years to come.

The House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee "will carefully review" the latest investigation, according to Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.

More immediately, the Fish and Wildlife Service disclosed this week that it'll review seven endangered species decisions that the agency now agrees "may have been inappropriately influenced" by MacDonald. The affected decisions range from how much habitat the California red-legged frog needs to whether Montana's white-tailed prairie dog deserves federal protection.

MacDonald oversaw the reduction of the red-legged frog's designated critical habit to 450,288 acres from the originally proposed 4.1 million acres. In another case found by Interior Department investigators, MacDonald pressed hard for a 90 percent reduction in the critical habitat for the Klamath River Basin bull trout.

"She didn't trust the agency's career people at all," said Durham, the former Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman.

The 52-year-old MacDonald has a master's degree in management, and Durham conceded that she "asked good questions, and she did make people think hard" about the environmental policy decisions that affected private property owners. Still, Durham added that the Interior Department's professional staffers thought it "very chilling" when a well-regarded career scientist was removed in 2004 from the job of overseeing endangered species.

Interior Department career staffers blamed MacDonald for what was widely seen as a politically motivated reassignment.

"MacDonald was 'quite hostile, raised her voice repeatedly and cut people short as they were explaining,'" the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General noted earlier this year, quoting a top department attorney.

The Center for Biological Diversity wants to bring the criticisms to court. The Arizona-based environmental group is planning to file multiple lawsuits over some 50 endangered species decisions overseen by MacDonald, covering plants and animals in states that include Texas, Washington, California and Florida.

"These are some of the most endangered species in the United States," Michael Senatore, the center's senior counsel, said in a statement earlier this month. "It's outrageous that federal scientists were blocked from protecting them by political appointees in Washington, D.C."