VIP lodge a favorite stop for high- and low-level officials
By Kevin Bogardus, E&E reporter
— December 16, 2014
Originally published December 15, 2014, by Environment & Energy Daily. Contact E&E for permission to republish.
Obama administration officials from the lower rungs of government, not just A-list figures like Vice President Joe Biden, have often used a vacation lodge in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.
Documents show that officials from the departments of the Interior and Justice, the National Park Service (NPS), the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) were scheduled to stay at the Brinkerhoff Lodge from 2011 into this year. Use of the remote historic two-story log cabin by government officials has attracted scrutiny from Capitol Hill as well as Interior’s inspector general.
Representatives of officials who stayed at the Brinkerhoff told Greenwire their time there was more for business than vacation. Who paid for their stay, however, varied among the officials — NPS sometimes picked up the tab while others paid out of their own pockets.
Some officials have seemingly used the lodge for personal time without being charged. That has led to several of them to pay back NPS months if not years after they first stayed at the Brinkerhoff.
Government work was on the agenda too for most officials. The Park Service would schedule their days at the Brinkerhoff with briefings and tours, grabbing the chance to sway those with oversight of agency funding and policy.
Greenwire obtained records detailing who stayed and when at the Brinkerhoff after filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents sent to Time under its own FOIA request earlier this year.
Time reported in October that bold-faced names in the administration had stayed at the lodge — including Biden, former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — which triggered the review into the use of the facility (Greenwire, Oct. 29). Not mentioned in the report were the lower-level officials who had used the Brinkerhoff too.
Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor stayed at the Brinkerhoff overnight Aug. 12. He was visiting Grand Teton where he conducted “official business,” according to a department official. That included an overview of the park, meeting staff, touring the area and receiving a briefing.
“He received a bill and paid the full amount due for his stay,” the Interior official said.
Along with NPS Director Jon Jarvis, regional directors with the park service have also stayed at the lodge.
Former Intermountain Regional Director John Wessels stayed with his family at the Brinkerhoff for about a week each in July 2011 and July 2013, according to documents. Sue Masica, current director for the region, and her mother also stayed at the lodge this past August.
Then Wessels and now Masica oversees the Grand Teton park as director of NPS’s Intermountain Region. That’s the park service’s largest region — stretching across eight states between the Canadian and Mexican borders.
April Slayton, a NPS spokeswoman, declined to answer questions about Wessels’ time at the lodge because he has left the agency and his records are now archived. Wessels said both of his trips to the Brinkerhoff Lodge were for official business, according to a spokesman for the American Battle Monuments Commission, where Wessels now serves as deputy secretary for overseas operations.
The NPS spokeswoman did say Masica’s trip was for “an orientation to park issues in her capacity as new regional director for the Intermountain Region.”
Masica met with staff and “stakeholders” to discuss the park’s operations and projects, according to Slayton. The regional director would then later decide to pay the agency back for her use of the lodge.
“In October of this year, Sue asked Grand Teton National Park to issue a bill for her stay, including the cost for her additional guest, and she has paid that bill,” Slayton said.
Jarvis too would foot his bill for use of the Brinkerhoff, though years after he stayed there in August 2012 with his family. The NPS chief was in the area for “official events” with the National Park Foundation’s board of directors and for “personal time,” Slayton said.
Slayton said Jarvis asked the agency this October for a bill for his and his guests’ time at the lodge, which he has paid.
Biden’s office has said the vice president will reimburse the park service for staying at the Brinkerhoff with a dozen family members this past August with a $1,200 check, according to Time.
Betsy Hildebrandt, then chief of staff for the Fish and Wildlife Service, stayed at the Brinkerhoff for a few days in August 2011. The trip was for business, according to an FWS official.
Now the agency’s assistant director for external affairs, Hildebrandt “was visiting Grand Teton in an official capacity to meet with the park superintendent. She was not billed for her stay at the lodge,” the agency official said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee Pico has traveled to the lodge several times, including for stays in 2012 and 2014, according to documents. Those trips were for “official business,” said John Powell, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wyoming.
Pico was “prosecuting cases in the Magistrate Court regarding violations that occurred in Grand Teton National Park or while conducting meetings and training with members of the Park Service,” Powell said. “Neither he nor our office was ever presented with a bill for his use of the cabin.”
Craig Crutchfield with OMB also spent time at the lodge in August 2013, according to documents.
“Craig Crutchfield did stay at the Brinkerhoff lodge and paid for his stay out of his own pocket. He was not reimbursed for his expenses,” an OMB official said.
Even if officials paid for their stay at the four-bedroom Brinkerhoff, they got a great deal.
Travelers are charged the government per diem rate for overnight stays at the lodge. For fiscal 2015 for Teton County, Wyo., where the park is based, that means $117 for each overnight stay at the Brinkerhoff for much of the year, with the rate climbing to $179 in July and August, according to the General Services Administration. It’s an additional $10 per night for each guest at the lodge other than official travelers.
Similar accommodations on the AirBnB website in the Grand Teton area ranged higher in price than the Brinkerhoff, starting at $300 to more than $1,000 this coming August. Nearby hotels have comparable lodging starting at more than $260 per night during that month.
It doesn’t look as if the Brinkerhoff is open for business, though, at least for next year.
“The Brinkerhoff is currently closed for the season, and reservations for summer 2015 are not being accepted by the park,” Slayton said.
‘They don’t get many shots at senators’
Like most federal agencies, money can be hard to come by for NPS. But the agency does have a potent weapon at the ready to wow lawmakers and administration officials: America’s National Park System that sees more than 275 million visitors a year.
Further, the Brinkerhoff is one of the Park Service’s most lauded attractions that can give park officials some invaluable face time with Washington’s movers and shakers.
One of those opportunities was this past August, when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.); Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D); David Sokol, formerly chairman of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Co.; and their spouses sat down for lunch at the lodge.
“They don’t get many shots at senators, so they made sure that he got the full nine yards,” Freudenthal, now senior counsel at Crowell & Moring, told Greenwire.
Manchin is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight of the national parks. NPS gave a briefing to Manchin and the other VIPs and asked for more agency funds, according to Freudenthal.
“The NPS made a pitch for more money, fee increases, what they usually do,” the ex-governor said.
Freudenthal and Manchin became friends when they served as governors of their respective states together. Jonathan Kott, a Manchin spokesman, said the senator and his wife took “a personal trip” to visit their friends, the Freudenthals.
“During this trip, the Park Service set up an official briefing for Sen. Manchin. During that briefing, lunch was served and paid for by the Park Service,” Kott said.
It wasn’t the best time, however, to impress the West Virginia senator with the park’s natural beauty.
“I wish it was a more beautiful day. It was kind of a rainy day,” Freudenthal said. “We couldn’t show them [the Grand Tetons] off as much as we like to in Wyoming.”
The Brinkerhoff has found itself in the spotlight for the wrong reasons this year. Biden and other VIPs’ use of the lodge, a government-owned property, seemingly for rest and relaxation has attracted attention from Congress.
Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the outgoing chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the panel’s incoming leader, have pushed for answers from the department.
Last month, the two sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell saying that NPS shouldn’t conduct an investigation of the use of the lodge, considering its officials also stayed, and that the department IG should take charge instead (Greenwire, Nov. 13).
Hastings said that he anticipates Bishop will not lose interest in the Brinkerhoff when he takes over the committee in 2015.
“I fully expect Chairman Bishop to probably continue asking those questions,” Hastings said. “I fully expect that to happen.”
Hastings said the committee has also developed an investigative aspect to its work this past Congress.
“They’re very competent people now,” Hastings said. “They’ve got their sea legs.”
An aide to the Utah Republican said Bishop will stay on top of the issue.
“It is very likely that the congressman will continue to pursue the investigation about uses of [the Brinkerhoff Lodge] by DOI staff,” said Melissa Subbotin, a Bishop spokeswoman.
In the meantime, the IG has initiated a review into the use of the Brinkerhoff. That probe is looking into the lodge’s management and operation, as well as identifying guests who have used the facility without paying the park service.
A spokesman for the DOI inspector general said NPS met a Nov. 21 deadline to hand over records on the use of the lodge to the watchdog “and is cooperating fully with our evaluation.”
The spokesman couldn’t divulge whether that material included documents released already under FOIA, noting “as a matter of policy, we do not provide information as to what we are learning during an evaluation.”
Click here to read the documents that NPS has released under FOIA on the use of the Brinkerhoff Lodge.
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