The White House recently ordered that a 50-person, Southwest-themed indoor party the Interior Department was planning to celebrate Secretary Deb Haaland’s confirmation be canceled after senior administration officials raised concerns that it could become a superspreader event.
Jennifer Van der Heide, the Interior chief of staff, had wanted a reception held for Haaland’s friends and allies and had even sought a catering estimate for New Mexican-style food, but senior Biden administration officials raised red flags about the party, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The White House eventually got wind of the planned event, and the Office of Cabinet Affairs ordered it shut down before invitations could be sent out, the people said.
In addition to concerns about the size of the party in the middle of a still-virulent pandemic, White House officials expressed consternation about the political optics of hosting such an affair while the administration was urging Americans to be responsible about public health.
The celebration was going to be held in the library at the Interior Department headquarters at 4 p.m. on March 16, according to a proposed catering menu for the event, which lists “50” as the number of expected guests.
The theme of the menu, to be catered by Anita’s of Northern Virginia at a cost of $547, was intended to reflect Haaland’s roots in New Mexico: two appetizer platters with beef and chicken flautas, chicken quesadillas, bean chimichanga and chile con queso. A garden salad, small fruit tray, chips and guacamole, and chicken and veggie red chile cheese enchiladas were also included.
Tiffany Tellez, the catering director for Anita’s, said that a lower-level Interior official first reached out to her at 9:30 a.m. on March 8 to start setting up the catering package.
“She told me what she liked, made her a quote and recommended some stuff. She told me she was going to get some delivery instructions for me, but then she canceled before she gave me anything concrete,” Tellez said in an interview. She said that the Interior official had described it as an “in-person meeting in the library” but that the event was getting too large so the order was canceled on March 10.
“‘I just got a notification that the in-person event has been canceled. Thank you for the quick responses,’” the Interior official emailed Tellez around 4:30 p.m. on that day. Tellez said she and the official did not discuss Covid-19 protocols for the party, such as whether the caterers were expected to wear masks or take any special precautions with the food.
Asked if she had been given a reason why the event was canceled, Tellez said the official “said the party size had increased to 50 and she said that was too much.” Tellez and the Interior official exchanged about 10 emails discussing the order, but they didn’t talk on the phone. She said that she had planned to call her to get payment information, but the party was canceled before she could do so.
After the party was canceled, Haaland, who is the first-ever Native American to hold a Cabinet post, instead had a private swearing-in at her house attended by her sisters and daughter after getting narrowly confirmed 51-40 on March 15. She was also ceremonially sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris at the White House.
“The secretary and Interior leadership have diligently observed Covid protocols both in and out of the building,” said an Interior spokesperson in a statement. “That includes implementing a first-ever mask mandate for the agency, a stringent telework posture, and multiple communications to staff assuring them that their health and safety is a critical priority. What this shows is that junior staff made soft inquiries for something that never happened. That the new team conducted research and gathered estimates for potential future events and opportunities should not be shocking. There was no event at Interior.”
Van der Heide, who was chief of staff in Haaland’s former congressional office and was a longtime Hill staffer, didn’t respond to a request for comment. A White House spokesperson declined to comment.
This is not the first time that Van der Heide has attracted negative attention for her work for a boss. In 2015, the Office of Congressional Ethics said that Van der Heide, when she was chief of staff for former Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), had appeared to have run afoul of ethical guidelines that separate government activities from campaign activities. One example was how she emailed a campaign staffer asking the person "how are we doing to outreach to them for $?" for a State Department event that Honda co-hosted in 2013.
At the time, lawyers for Van der Heide and Honda said the report "addresses actions which either do not violate applicable ethics rules or, at worst, present narrow concerns.” But Van der Heide also apologized for her conduct in 2014, saying that although she had volunteered for Honda’s campaign on personal time without using government resources, “I fell short of the congressman’s expectations and the example I try to set for the office.”
The House Ethics Committee never pursued action against Van der Heide.
If the Interior party had been held, it would have violated the Biden administration’s own March 8 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that people “[a]void large events and gatherings, when possible.” Another CDC webpage, updated Feb. 18, says: “As much as possible, avoid crowds and indoor spaces that do not offer fresh air from the outdoors.” The D.C. public health emergency’s latest notice, issued last week, also says that indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people.
An Interior Covid-19 workplace safety plan issued in January also advises that “no DOI indoor workplace or visitor experience facility, venue, or other areas where visitors typically congregate in large crowds should operate above 25% of normal occupancy standards during periods of significant or high community transmission as defined by CDC.”
The party also seemed to violate the spirit of the Covid-19 telework and travel guidance for the White House issued to Cabinet agencies. “Remember that you and your senior staff are setting an example, not only for your agency staff and the rest of government, but for the American people,” the guidance advises.
The Trump administration was sharply criticized for hosting in-person events as the coronavirus spread in 2020, including about two dozen White House Christmas parties, the presidential convention and a large ceremony in the Rose Garden to celebrate Amy Coney Barrett, former President Donald Trump’s final Supreme Court pick.
A 50-person party at Interior would have been roughly the same number of people that attended the unveiling of former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s official portrait last December in the library, where mask use was inconsistent, according to two former senior Trump Interior officials who attended. The Trump Interior Department also had started planning a holiday party last year for staffers, but that event was ultimately canceled soon because of the pandemic. The department also didn’t have the traditional going-away party for Secretary David Bernhardt, who tested positive for Covid-19 in December.
“In the Trump administration, the White House didn’t get in our way. The White House knew we would use good judgment and we wouldn’t get second-guessed by them because we didn’t plan things that were hypocritical,” said one former senior Trump Interior official. “They clearly planned something that was contrary to their policies.”
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