BLM May Be Engaging in Illegal “Puffery”
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency of the executive branch, Department of the Interior (DOI), has long been under fire for its policies of rounding up and warehousing wild free-roaming horses and burros in holding pens on private land. A round-up of wild free-roaming horses in the Calico Complex area in Nevada, that the BLM started in December 2009 despite a federal judge’s recommendation that it be delayed, is strongly opposed by advocates for the horses and members of the public. Opposition includes commentary, editorials, news reports, protests and a pending lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C..
The BLM has replied with commentary of its own, with a reponse to the lawsuit and by publishing on its website “Letters in Support” of its action, and news reports and editorials criticizing advocates and the public. The BLM website does not feature “Letters in Opposition” to its action and does not provide links to news reports or editorials critical of the round-up. In taking this tack, the BLM may be engaging in the illegal activity of “puffery.”
A March 21, 2005, report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), defines restrictions on “public relations activities and propaganda” by the executive branch that have been included in every appropriations bill passed by Congress since 1951:
Generally speaking, there are two legal restrictions on agency public relations activities and propaganda. 5 U.S.C. 3107 prohibits the use of appropriated funds to hire publicity experts. Appropriations law “publicity and propaganda” clauses restrict the use of funds for puffery of an agency, purely partisan communications, and covert propaganda.
Self-aggrandizement, or “puffery,” is defined on a case-by-case basis by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) in cases that “involve the expenditure of federal funds on agency communications with the public.”
In this case, the BLM’s web page on what the agency calls “The Calico Gather,” has two potentially illegal features: the BLM’s failure to include “Letters in Opposition” to the agency’s action, and failure to include in “News Releases and Editorials” any news reports or editorials critical of the agency’s actions.
Any member of the U.S. Congress may ask the GAO to investigate whether the BLM’s “Calico Complex Gather” web page amounts to an inappropriate, unethical, misleading and illegal “publicity and propaganda” campaign of puffery.