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Cummings Questions Issa’s Priorities in Occupy DC Probe

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) appears to be in the early stages of launching an investigation into the Department of the Interior’s handling of the Occupy DC encampment at McPherson Square, an effort that his panel’s top Democrat thinks is a waste of time.

“Our committee has the power to achieve great benefits investigating waste, fraud and abuse on behalf of the American people,” Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a statement provided to Roll Call, “but investigating Occupy Wall Street protestors is a poor use of our resources and authority.”

Issa’s interest in the situation began late last year when he sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking for answers and documents relating to protestors’ around-the-clock presence at McPherson Square since Sept. 17. Issa believes it could constitute “camping,” which would be in violation of the law.

He also said their presence could be harming public grounds that received more than $400,000 in upgrades as part of the 2009 economic stimulus law.

A Jan. 6 letter from National Park Service Deputy Director of Operations Peggy O’Dell suggested that her agency, which is housed within the Department of the Interior, has determined that demonstrators’ presence at McPherson Square falls in line with previous activities that have been judged to be protected by First Amendment free speech and assembly rights.

“The NPS … takes seriously its responsibility to protect the resources that have been entrusted in its care,” wrote O’Dell. “First Amendment activities, however, often come with a measure of wear and tear on our national parks, not dissimilar to what results from frequent and high-volume use by visitors and tourists to our parks in the National Capital Region and around the country.”

O’Dell said that of the $400,000 stimulus grant, only $8,000 was used to re-sod the park with new grass. The rest, she said, was spent on “hardscape improvements that have not, to our knowledge, been damaged over the course of the demonstration.”

In lieu of answering Issa’s lengthy list of questions, O’Dell said the Park Service would be happy to brief the committee in more detail.

Issa fired back in a Jan. 10 letter, writing that a failure to submit requested materials by Jan. 23 could result in the committee resorting to “compulsory processes to obtain this information” — namely, subpoenas.

Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher has maintained that the Interior Department is in compliance with Issa’s demands.

“The Department has provided a thorough response to Chairman Issa’s letter,” he said. “We will continue to work with the committee to provide information that is responsive to this request.”

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