Group challenges reassignment of former Grand Teton superintendent

By Mike Koshmrl

Jackson Hole Daily

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — A federal government watchdog group is challenging the legality of David Vela’s reassignment to the National Park Service’s acting deputy director of operations role in Washington, D.C.

Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park since 2014, Vela was nominated to direct the Park Service last summer, but the U.S. Senate never confirmed him, and he has not been renominated under the new Congress. Longtime Park Service employee Dan Smith, another deputy director who has been “exercising the authority of director,” announced Vela’s reassignment to the deputy job. The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is arguing that Smith lacks the authority to appoint Vela.

“Under the Park Service’s foundational statute, only a Senate-confirmed director can appoint the deputy director of operations job,” PEER’s senior legal counsel, Peter Jenkins, wrote to U.S. Department of Interior Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall in a letter dated Wednesday.

PEER’s letter points out that Smith has never been appointed as the director, acting or otherwise, and that President Trump has not nominated a new director.

“Deputy Director Smith cannot unilaterally assume the ‘authority of the Director’ to make such an appointment,” the letter says, “and he cannot put ‘Acting’ in front of David Vela’s title to circumvent the law’s requirements.”

Challenges in the inspector general complaint go beyond the legality of Vela’s reassignment. The Trump administration has made a habit, the letter says, of appointing “non-Senate confirmed politicals” to posts that legally must be presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed.

Eight high-ranking Department of Interior employees allegedly have been hired by circumventing the law, according to PEER. Those officials include: Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s de facto solicitor; Susan Combs, de facto assistant secretary for policy, management and budget; Andrea Travnicek, de facto assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks; Brian Steed, de facto Bureau of Land Management director; Smith, the de facto Park Service director; Glenda Owens, de facto director of the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation; Margaret Everson, de facto director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; and Jerold Gidner, de facto trustee for the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.

“All of those [Department of Interior] roles require Senate confirmation,” PEER’s attorney wrote. “None have it, going back two and one-quarter years to the Trump Inauguration on January 20, 2017.”

A Park Service communications staffer in Washington, D.C., did not return a phone call requesting comment by press time.