Two watchdog groups are calling for the resignation of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's chief appraiser Dave Cavanaugh after the latest audit found him sidestepping federal standards for land trades in Utah.
A Department of Interior Inspector General audit found that Cavanaugh allowed landowners in Washington County to set their own price.
The latest audit was the last straw for Western Land Exchange Project, a Seattle-based group that has been critical of the high prices being paid to St. George landowners.
The group, along with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility of Washington, D.C., Monday called for the immediate removal of Cavanaugh, the senior specialist for appraisals in BLM's Washington, D.C., office.
"It's been clear for a long time that Cavanaugh's actions are hurting the public — the fact that he's still in his job shows how little leadership or accountability there is in the BLM," said Janine Blaeloch, director of Western Land Exchange Project.
In a letter to a BLM supervisor Carson "Pete" Culp, Blaeloch blames Cavanaugh for ripping off American taxpayers to the tune of millions of dollars. The letter was sent to BLM managers around the United States.
"Despite repeated findings that Cavanaugh has violated the law, lost millions of dollars in public money and generally acted counter to the public interest, he remains in a position that oversees the appraisal function for the entire agency," the letter states.
Cavanaugh likened this to a terrorist attack.
"There's nothing I can do about it," Cavanaugh said. "It is like dealing with terrorist. You don't know when or where they will attack. And they can sneak back into their cave. It just is savaging to a person's reputation."
Cavanaugh was the official "reviewer" of the appraisals — the person charged with making sure the appraisals are fair and equitable — in many federal land trades in Utah and elsewhere. Jack MacDonald, the former chief appraiser for the BLM in Utah, complained about questionable land trades, which resulted in several investigations and a series of stories reported in the Deseret News.
Last year, the federal General Accounting Office cited numerous problems with the land exchanges conducted by the BLM and U.S. Forest Service. It further recommended that Congress remove BLM's ability to sell and buy land under its land exchange program.
In the latest audit, published in July, the Interior inspector general found similar problems. A key figure in the appraisals under scrutiny is Cavanaugh, who oversaw the appraisals in eight land exchanges in Utah.
Throughout the report, Cavanaugh is taken to task for questionable decisions that critics say sharply reduced the market value of federal lands and inflated the value of private lands offered in exchange — by nearly a third higher than the owner's own appraisal in one case.
Instead of arriving at a price for the land based on fair market value, Cavanaugh would negotiate with landowners individually. When they complained that the lands were being undervalued, he would simply increase the value, the audit report said.
Cavanaugh defended his actions in the report, arguing that "property owners should have an opportunity to be more involved in the appraisal process."
Targeted in the audit was a 1998 land exchange in southwestern Utah with DeMar Limited, owned by the family of Washington County Commissioner Alan Gardner. According to the audit, Cavanaugh estimated the value of the entire 247 acres at $1.2 million without seeking comparable sales or explaining reasons for adjustments. DeMar Limited was eventually paid $1.75 million.
This land exchange also was cited in the GAO report. According to investigators, Gardner's private appraiser estimated the value of the property at $7,000 per acre, whereas an appraiser hired by the BLM estimated the land was worth $1,000 an acre.