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Interior Bernhardt

David Bernhardt was acting Interior Secretary following Ryan Zinke's resignation days before the Dec. 22, 2018 start of a government shutdown.

WASHINGTON — Leaders of the Trump administration's Interior Department violated federal law in dipping into user fees to reopen national parks during last winter's government shutdown, a government watchdog agency concludes in a scathing legal opinion that warns officials risk fines and prison if they do it again.

Interior under then-acting, now permanent Secretary David Bernhardt "disregarded not only the laws themselves but also the congressional prerogatives that underlie them," the Government Accountability Office said in a finding released Thursday. The action was "an abuse of the trust Congress placed in Interior," it added.

An Interior Department spokeswoman, Melissa Brown, denied Thursday the agency's actions were illegal, saying "the department acted well within its legal authority."

The nonpartisan GAO, in a review requested by Democratic lawmakers, examined actions by the Interior Department during a December and January government shutdown, when a budget battle between President Donald Trump and Congress closed most non-critical government offices and furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers.

Bernhardt was serving as the agency's acting head, after Trump announced the resignation of predecessor Ryan Zinke days before the Dec. 22 start of the shutdown.

With parks closed in the absence of federal appropriations, Bernhardt on Jan. 5 directed national parks to draw on user fees to do the minimal work - cleaning restrooms, emptying trash - to allow parks to reopen, partially staffed. While some welcomed the move, many parks supporters opposed it, saying the skeleton staffing would lead to damage at the parks.

The GAO said that violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits spending without congressional authorization. It said Interior would need to correct the violation, report it and identify the officials responsible.

Any repetition during future shutdowns would "be a knowing and willful violation of the Antideficiency Act," punishable by up to $5,000 in fines and two years in prison, the watchdog wrote.

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"It's obvious that the GAO reached their conclusion prematurely and without regard for all of the facts," Brown said. "We completely disagree with the GAO's erroneous opinion regarding our appropriate and lawful use of ... funds," she said.

In a separate legal decision, the GAO said the administration also violated the same law when it provided early payment of February food stamp benefits for to more than 40 million Americans.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture used a loophole in a spending bill to continue benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The agency noted that there had never been a break in food stamp benefits since the program was made permanent in 1964.

Included in the spending bill was a provision giving federal agencies the authority to make obligated payments to support certain programs for 30 days after its expiration date. As a result, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asked states to issue the payments early, on or before Jan. 20.

But the GAO said USDA acted improperly. "Had Congress intended to allow USDA to make these early payments, it would have provided that authority," it said.

USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A third decision found the General Services Administration did not violate the law when it used available funds to continue operating the observation tower at the Old Post Office Building in Washington during the shutdown. The tower is housed in what is now the Trump International Hotel.

The agency said it would issue a separate opinion later on Interior's spending for the observation tower during the shutdown.

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