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Justice Department informed of Utah land swap issue
Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has been notified of potential criminal wrongdoing in a land swap in Utah's picturesque San Rafael Swell that was aborted when whistleblowers said it would have been a $100 million taxpayer rip-off.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel cited "evidence of criminal violations" as a grounds for not releasing a report prepared in response to allegations raised by Bureau of Land Management appraiser Kent Wilkinson.

The special counsel's office had earlier determined that Wilkinson's claims had merit, and directed the Interior Department to investigate the matter and report on changes it would make. By law, that report is made available to the whistleblowers for review unless potential criminal matters are uncovered.

"The department's report in this case states that evidence of criminal violations were referred to the Attorney General, thus, we cannot transmit the report to you," said a recent letter from Malia Myers Paslawski, an attorney in the Office of Special Counsel's disclosure unit, to Dan Meyer, an attorney with the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is representing Wilkinson.

The Utah land swap was intended to consolidate federal land in the scenic San Rafael Swell, a maze of redrock slot canyons and bluffs, to make it easier for President Bush to designate the area a national monument.

But BLM appraisers in Utah told The Associated Press last year that the deal amounted to a giveaway of as much as $117 million in valuable federal mineral reserves on land being turned over to the state of Utah.

It was unclear Monday who might be under investigation or even what report and set of allegations may have prompted the submission to the Attorney General.

A Justice Department spokesman said the department cannot confirm or deny whether a criminal investigation is under way.

Under law, the Interior Department would have been obligated to respond to the whistleblower's claims. But Interior Department spokesman Mark Pfeifle said the department has not yet completed its review of the San Rafael land swap, although sweeping reforms of the land appraisal process were put in place last month.

Meyer said Office of Special Counsel officials handling the case told him the department had submitted its report weeks ago, but an OSC spokesman did not return a phone call Monday.

An earlier review by the department's inspector general verified that the value of federal lands was significantly underestimated in the San Rafael exchange and that BLM officials sought to hide the disparity from Congress. But the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to prosecute based on those findings.

If the Office of Special Counsel forwards the case to the attorney general, it is required to notify the Office of Personnel Management and the White House Office of Management and Budget. OMB did not respond to written questions submitted Monday.

The Interior Department's inspector general is conducting an ongoing investigation into the role BLM Director Kathleen Clarke - the former director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources - played in the exchange.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Tom Fulton was reassigned as director of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Celebration.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.
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