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Amid Legal Questions, Contract Extended For Acting Head Of Land Management


So why would President Trump leave a federal agency without a permanent director for several years, and what are the consequences? Those are some of the questions surrounding William Perry Pendley. He's acting director of the Federal Bureau of Land Management, and he's leading this agency even though he spent years as a lawyer fighting against its very existence. Despite the questions, Pendley's temporary appointment was extended this week. Here's NPR's Kirk Siegler.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: The Bureau of Land Management is the agency that decides who gets to do what on 250 million acres of public land, or, to put it another way, roughly 10% of the entire U.S. The Trump administration hasn't nominated a permanent director for close to three years now. And even in the latest order extending William Perry Pendley, the Interior Department argues it's necessary to avoid uninterrupted management during the presidential transition. Peter Jenkins is senior counsel with the liberal-leaning watchdog Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

PETER JENKINS: Is that funny? It just shows that the order three years after the presidential transition is false, is built on a false premise. And for that reason, we think it's illegal and should be challenged and probably will be challenged soon.

SIEGLER: That legal battle may center on whether Pendley's post violates the Constitution's Appointments Clause. The administration is citing a 1950 law that allows them to shuffle staffers around into temporary positions to keep agencies running during periods of transition. These are posts that would normally require Senate confirmation. Travis Annatoyn is an attorney with Democracy Forward, a frequent litigant against the White House. He says Pendley's decisions could have huge implications for the West and U.S. economy.

TRAVIS ANNATOYN: He can run the agency as if it were his. And that's particularly problematic because this is a position that Congress specifically reserved for the Senate's advice and consent.

SIEGLER: And there are currently questions about whether Pendley can legally or ethically run the agency's day-to-day operations. In his own ethics filing, Pendley identified almost 60 entities that he'd have to recuse himself from making decisions over at the BLM because he or his law firms represented them. They range from the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, which advocates for more drilling on public land, to Garfield County, Utah, which is battling environmentalists over a plan to shrink the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

JAYSON O'NEILL: It raises the question, is there any work, really, that he can be active in that it isn't a violation of his recusals?

SIEGLER: That's Jayson O'Neill with the environmental group Western Values Project. Now, there's speculation that Acting Director Pendley wouldn't be confirmed even by the Republican-controlled Senate. As recently as 2016, he called for selling off federal lands, and he's publicly sympathized with scofflaw ranchers such as militia leader Cliven Bundy. For his part, Pendley has said his character is under unfair attack. Here he is recently speaking to Billings, Mont., radio station KBUL.


WILLIAM PERRY PENDLEY: I'm a Marine. I understand the chain of command. I understand and know how to follow orders. I get it. So whatever I've done or said in the past is irrelevant.

SIEGLER: Pendley's post as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management is currently set to expire January 3. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "VINES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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