Several Democrats in Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct the investigation.
The GAO looked at whether the Interior acted illegally when it used entrance fee money to fund routine maintenance of parks during the shutdown.
Shirley Jones is an attorney with the watchdog group. She said entrance fees are supposed to go towards things like repairs and facility enhancement. “But they used those funds for more general purposes,” she said, “such as trash collection and maintenance of restrooms and sanitation.”
Jones said that’s illegal and if the Interior Department repeats this type of unapproved spending error, it could be subject to penalties.
An Interior Department spokesperson said the agency rejects the GAO’s decision. In a statement, she said: "We completely disagree with the GAO's erroneous opinion...The Department acted well within its legal authority to clean up restrooms and pick up trash, so the American people could enjoy their National Parks.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.