Though his agency was charged with coordinating the federal response to the major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Department of the Interior chief of staff Tom Strickland was in the Grand Canyon with his wife last week participating in activities that included white-water rafting, ABC News has learned.
Other leaders of the Interior Department were focused on the Gulf, joined by other agencies and literally thousands of other employees. But Strickland’s participation in a trip that administration officials insisted was “work-focused” raised eyebrows among other Obama administration officials and even within even his own department, sources told ABC News.
Strickland, who also serves as Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, was in the Grand Canyon with his wife Beth for a total of three days, including one day of rafting. Beth Strickland paid her own way, Obama administration officials said.
The Stricklands departed for the Grand Canyon three days after the leaks in the Deepwater Horizon pipeline were discovered. Ultimately, after the government realized that the spill was worse than had been previously thought, officials decided that Strickland was needed in the Gulf so Strickland was taken out of the Grand Canyon by a National Park Service helicopter.
One government official, asking for anonymity because of the political sensitivities involved, told ABC News that some Interior Department employees thought it was “irresponsible” for Strickland to have gone on the trip, given the crisis in the Gulf, which was fully apparent at the time he departed for the Grand Canyon.
When asked about Strickland’s trip, Interior Department press secretary Kendra Barkoff told ABC News that “the federal government has been all over this issue from day one in a unified coordinated response.”
Barkoff said that Secretary Salazar deputized Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes “to be the point person on this issue and from the morning after the explosion from the time he got to New Orleans he has been working on this non-stop with the help of other people in the Interior Department as well as other agencies involved.”
An administration source says that Strickland’s trip to the Grand Canyon was work-focused. He was with the director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis, and Grand Canyon National Park Superintendant Steve Martin, the source said, and they discussed matters such as river flows, beach erosion, humpback chub, tamarisk control, overflights, safety, motor boats, and wilderness management.
Strickland is Salazar’s chief of staff as well as the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, having been confirmed to the latter position on April 30, 2009.
When asked during his Senate confirmation hearings as to which job would take priority, Strickland was very clear to the members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Energy and Natural Resource Committee: “My first priority will be the responsibilities of this assistant secretary position, and we are staffing the personal operation of the Secretary with that in mind,” he said.
Strickland’s deputy chief of staff, Renee Stone, “is going to take most of the responsibilities of the chief of staff day-to-day,” he testified.
The White House has aggressively pushed back on any notions that the federal government did not immediately respond to the crisis, providing today a detailed timeline indicating the day by day response in terms of the total numbers of response vessels, feet of boom deployed, oily water recovered, and overall personnel responding, among other measures.
That timeline, however, might raise even more questions as to why the Assistant Secretary in charge of fish and wildlife — not to mention the Interior Department chief of staff — didn’t reconsider the timeliness of his trip to the Grand Canyon with his wife, however work-focused.
The explosion at Deepwater Horizon was on April 20, and Hayes and Barkoff arrived in the Gulf the next day.
On Saturday April 24, the first oil leaks were discovered.
On Tuesday, April 27, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that his department along with the Department of Homeland Security would launch an investigation into the Deepwater Horizon Incident. Salazar pledged “every resource we can to support the massive response effort underway at the Deepwater Horizon.”
Strickland and his wife arrived in the Grand Canyon that night.
The day before his travel, the US Fish and Wildlife Service began working with the Coast Guard to identify high-priority national wildlife refuges to be shielded with boom. More than one thousand overall personnel had been deployed to the region.
By Thursday, April 29, the fact that Strickland was not one of those personnel became sufficient issue that he tried to leave the Grand Canyon. The night before, the federal government updated its assessment that 1,000 barrels of oil a day were leaking into the Gulf, judging the spillage to be five times that. A National Park Service helicopter was flown in to remove him from the Grand Canyon so he could travel to the Gulf of Mexico to help with the federal response to the oil slick.
As Strickland made his way to New Orleans that Thursday, April 29, President Obama first addressed the oil slick in public, saying his "administration will continue to use every single available resource at our disposal, including potentially the Department of Defense, to address the incident."
A former U.S. Attorney for the District of Colorado, Strickland ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 1996 and 2002.
On January 22, 2009, Salazar said that at the department he and Strickland – as a former US Attorney and a former Attorney General, respectively – “will hold people accountable. We will expect to be held accountable.”