updated 5/21/2008 4:36:09 PM ET 2008-05-21T20:36:09

A congressional investigator asserted Wednesday that at least four Interior Department officials may have inappropriately interfered in decisions on protection of endangered species.

The four officials — including three Bush administration appointees — may have put political pressure on lower-ranking employees who were deciding endangered species cases, said a top investigator for the Government Accountability Office.

The allegation came during a House hearing on purported interference by Julie MacDonald, a high-ranking Interior official who resigned last year after the department's inspector general found that she pressured government scientists to alter their findings about endangered species and leaked information about species decisions to industry officials.

The Bush administration later reversed seven rulings that denied endangered species increased protection, saying MacDonald's actions had tainted the decisions.

The officials named Wednesday were not accused of wrongdoing, per se, but memos, e-mails and other documents studied by the GAO show they were involved in decisions later found to be tainted by MacDonald, said Robin Nazzaro, director of Natural Resources and Environment for the GAO.

Election season cited
Two of the officials named by Nazzaro denied the allegation, and a spokesman for the Interior Department called it absurd.

"That is a shocker — the Department of the Interior is managed by senior political appointees. That is the net result of presidential elections," said Interior spokesman Chris Paolino.

"Obviously, a number of political appointees have responsibilities that include the administration of the Endangered Species Act, and it really should come as no surprise that senior political appointees are involved in significant decisions. In many cases it is required by law and regulation," Paolino said.

Former Assistant Interior Secretary Craig Manson, who was among those named by Nazzaro at a House hearing Wednesday, said his job was to oversee the Endangered Species Act.

"The fact was the assistant secretary's office took a very active role in the ESA program, and that's perfectly proper for the assistant secretary's office to do so," said Manson, who now is a law professor at the University of the Pacific in Sacramento.

A former judge, Manson served four years as assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks before resigning in December 2005.

Todd Willens, a former deputy assistant Interior secretary, also denied the allegation. Like Manson, Willens called it curious that no one from the GAO contacted him before his name was publicly linked to MacDonald.

If investigators "felt there were specific cases of concern, they would have been included in the GAO report and they weren't," said Willens, now a Washington lobbyist. "It's pretty sloppy work by the GAO."

Other officials named by Nazzaro were Brian Waidmann, chief of staff to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, and Randal Bowman, special assistant to Lyle Laverty, the assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.

Manson, Willens and Waidmann were Bush administration appointees, while Bowman is a career Interior official who was recently promoted by Laverty.

The allegation against Waidmann marked the first time that allegations of political interference had reached the office of Kempthorne, a former Idaho governor and senator who became Interior secretary in 2006. Waidmann and Bowman, who both still work at Interior, did not return telephone messages.

Democrats pounce on report
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, called Nazzaro's testimony and the 66-page GAO report troubling.

"A disconcerting picture has emerged of officials working at the highest levels of the Interior Department continuing to tamper with the endangered species program, trumping science with politics," Rahall said. "The practice is pervasive and I am convinced that the only remedy is a house-cleaning, post-November."

In its report, the GAO criticized the Fish and Wildlife Service, an arm of the Interior Department, for conducting an overly narrow review following MacDonald's resignation. Instead of focusing only on MacDonald, the agency should have broadened its review to include decisions potentially influenced by other high-ranking Interior officials, the report said.

"Questions remain about the extent to which Interior officials other than Ms. MacDonald may have inappropriately influenced (Endangered Species Act) decisions and whether broader ESA policies should be revisited," the GAO said.

Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Neb., said the GAO should have interviewed the four officials before releasing their names at a public hearing.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., also said the men should have been interviewed — but in context of a wider investigation that focused on more than just MacDonald.

"I don't think we've gotten anywhere near the bottom of this," DeFazio said. "We don't know how many decisions were polluted or corrupted" by political appointees at Interior.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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