WASHINGTON – Democrats said Wednesday an Interior Department official who pressured government scientists to alter their research was just one example of a larger problem.
Julie MacDonald resigned last week as deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks after the department's inspector general said she bullied federal scientists and improperly leaked information about endangered species to private groups.
Democrats welcomed MacDonald's departure, but accused the administration of abdicating its responsibility to protect endangered species.
"This is an agency that seems focused on one goal: weakening the law by administrative fiat, and it is doing much of the work shrouded from public view," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett disputed that, saying in sometimes contentious testimony that the administration is committed to protecting endangered species.
The main threat to the agency's work was not politics but litigation, Scarlett said, noting that the Fish and Wildlife Service is fighting 41 lawsuits involving seven threatened species.
She declined to comment on MacDonald's resignation, calling it a personnel matter. But she said the department had formed an "accountability board" and taken other steps to ensure that Interior officials act with integrity.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., said MacDonald's resignation was "no gift to the country. She wandered around the department for three years changing documents and ... making determinations based on her beliefs."
He and other Democrats pressed Scarlett to agree to review dozens of decisions in which MacDonald was involved, including a case in which she acknowledged giving internal agency documents to the California Farm Bureau and other organizations considering litigation against the government.
In another case, MacDonald demanded that scientists reduce the nesting range for the Southwest willow flycatcher from a radius of 2.1 miles to a radius of 1.8 miles, so it would not cross into California where her husband has a ranch, the inspector general said.
Miller called that an outrage.
"Julie MacDonald strived to do what she thought was her duty," Scarlett said.
"Give me a break," Miller snapped back. "If you believe that, we're in very serious trouble."
Another Democrat, Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington, told Scarlett she should consider resigning. Inslee questioned Scarlett over her role as head of a group of Bush political appointees who ordered a rewrite of plans to protect the northern spotted owl. MacDonald also was a member of the group.