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Disgraced official was paid work bonus

Nature volume 447, page 621 (07 June 2007) | Download Citation

Irregularities highlight political interference in Endangered Species Act.

Further troubling reports have surfaced in the case of a disgraced US official accused of political interference in the workings of the Endangered Species Act. It has been disclosed that Julie MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the Department of the Interior (DOI), received a performance award of nearly $10,000 in 2005. Yet the report of an investigation into her conduct, released on 27 March this year, reveals that MacDonald violated federal regulations while in that position. She resigned on 1 May.

The report, by the DOI's office of inspector general, paints a portrait of a woman determined to minimize the Endangered Species Act's effect on the economy. It includes evidence from colleagues that she heavily edited science reports from the field despite having no formal scientific training, and bullied and intimidated field scientists into producing documents along the lines she wanted.

Observers say the case highlights how appointees of President George W. Bush can and have pushed political agendas within federal agencies.“She was a little bit more overt and transparent and shameless about her political antics and dealings, but she was not a lone ranger,” says Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice-president of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife in Washington DC and former director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

MacDonald was also chastised for sharing “nonpublic information with private sector sources”, including a nonprofit lobby group called the California Farm Bureau Federation; the Pacific Legal Foundation, a law firm that represents development interests; and a friend from an online game. The report outlines how she sent internal departmental documents to a friend in the game World of Warcraft “to have another set of eyes give an unfiltered opinion of them”. MacDonald could not be reached for comment by Nature.

The latest chapter comes from Steve Davies, editor of the newsletter Endangered Species & Wetlands Report. Davies learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that MacDonald received a Special Thanks for Achieving Results award of $9,628 in March 2005, during the period covered by the investigation. The DOI will not detail the reasons for the award; it says the justification is included in her performance evaluation, which is private.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress are investigating MacDonald for her role in removing the Sacramento splittail fish from the endangered species list. MacDonald owns a farm in a floodplain that is a habitat for the fish, according to an investigation by the Contra Costa Times, a newspaper in California.

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