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Issa presses for answers on Occupy D.C. protesters

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Republican chairman of a powerful House oversight committee on Tuesday told the Department of the Interior secretary that the National Park Service has been "unresponsive" to his questions regarding Occupy D.C.'s extended stay in McPherson Square despite getting a deadline extension and that he might consider "compulsory processes" to get answers.

Rep. Darrell E. Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, told Interior Secretary Kenneth L. Salazar that a letter from the Park Service received Jan. 6 failed to answer such questions as what is the difference between camping and a "24-hour vigil" and how long will the demonstrators be allowed to stay. A letter sent in response by Mr. Issa on Tuesday also asks for all agency communications made with the White House, the National Park Service and the District, including the Metropolitan Police Department.

Mr. Issa, of California, listed a total 18 questions in the letter and set a Jan. 24 deadline for the responses.

"While I understand that recent events involving the National Park Service have caused additional delays, a month has now passed since my request was sent," Mr. Issa wrote. "While I appreciate [the agency's] offer of a staff briefing, the letter specifically requested written answers and documents."

The Jan. 6 letter sent to the committee by Park Service Deputy Director Peggy O'Dell says the Park Service "takes seriously its responsibility to protect the resources that have been entrusted to its care." However, the Occupy movement is protected by the First Amendment, and "First Amendment activities often come with a measure of wear and tear on our national parks."

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher in an email stated the agency will "continue to work with the committee to provide information that is responsive to this request.

In Mr. Issa's original Dec. 12 letter, he said no government agency should have allowed McPherson Square, just blocks from the White House, to be damaged or destroyed "when it legally could have been prevented."

On the issue of the park receiving a roughly $400,000 taxpayer improvement and damage to the turf by demonstrators, the Park Service said just $8,000 of the money had been used for new grass.

The movement is part of the larger, national Occupy protest, which protesters say is largely in response to unfair Wall Street practices and government greed in a struggling economy. The group started camping in McPherson Square in early October.

Mr. Issa also is questioning whether the decision not to evict the demonstrators, as other cities have, is politically motivated.

The Park Service also has come under fire from D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray, who has asked to be reimbursed at least $1.6 million to cover personnel costs as well as sanitation and street maintenance costs.

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