Trump administration violated law to keep parks open during shutdown

The Trump administration violated federal laws when it tapped entrance fees to keep the nation’s national parks open during the 35-day shutdown earlier this year, according to a legal opinion from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office. 

GAO said the Interior Department moved money between accounts without authorization from Congress, in violation of federal law. The agency must report the violation to Congress, identify the officials responsible for it and explain steps it will take to prevent similar violations. It said any subsequent actions in the future would be “knowing and willful violations,” subjecting officials to penalties.

Interior did not cooperate with GAO’s investigation, according to the report. An Interior spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

“We take our responsibility to Congress seriously, and will not allow an agency’s lack of cooperation to interfere with Congress’s oversight of executive spending,” GAO wrote. “Accordingly, we issue our opinion in this matter notwithstanding Interior’s failure to timely respond to our request for information.”

In a statement, Interior said it completely disagreed with the “erroneous” decision over its use of the funds.

“It’s obvious that the GAO reached their conclusion prematurely and without regard for all of the facts,” an agency spokesperson told POLITICO. “We completely disagree with the GAO’s erroneous opinion regarding our appropriate and lawful use of [Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act] funds.”

“The Department acted well within its legal authority to clean up restrooms and pick up trash, so the American people could enjoy their National Parks,” the spokesperson added.

Congressional Democrats, who released the GAO opinion Thursday, said the opinion showed the administration clearly violated the law and pushed for consequences.

“The Secretary of Interior seems to think the rule of law doesn’t apply to the Trump administration,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee, said in a statement. “The Administration should now immediately report this violation and take corrective actions as required by law. This should put the administration on notice that their illegal actions will not be tolerated.”

Her Senate counterpart, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), said: “Their assurances at the time that their actions were legal have proven false, and there should be consequences for this violation.”

Then acting Secretary David Bernhardt issued a directive on Jan. 5, 2019, to tap into the entrance fees to address maintenance and sanitation issues that had developed at national parks remaining open during the shutdown.