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Salazar Kicks Off Review of Troubled Interior Program

By Ed O'Keefe

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has asked the Justice Department to review allegations of criminal activity at the scandal-ridden Mineral Management Service and has tapped his chief of staff, Tom Strickland, to oversee a top-to-bottom review of the Colorado-based federal agency that manages American natural gas and oil on the outer continental shelf. Interior will also examine the possible restructuring of MMS's royalty-in-kind program and has issued a new code of conduct for the agency.

"The President has made it clear that the type of ethical transgressions, blatant conflicts of interest, wastes and abuses that we have seen over the past eight years will no longer be tolerated," Salazar said this afternoon during an appearance at MMS offices in Lakewood, Colo. "The Department of the Interior will raise the bar for ethics, and we will set the standard for reform."

Three separate inspector general reports released last September revealed instances of wrongdoing among current and former MMS staffers who accepted gifts including tickets to sporting events and concerts from oil and gas industry representatives; allegedly had sexual relationships with subordinates; bought cocaine from fellow staffers; and arranged for hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting work upon retirement.

Most of the problems revolve around the royalty-in-kind program, which collects in-kind payments on federal oil and gas leases. In November, some of the accused employees were disciplined for their transgressions while others were fired. Salazar today also tasked Strickland, a former U.S. attorney, with reviewing those personnel actions to determine if additional actions are necessary.

"The problems that occurred here in Lakewood were the product of a few individuals and a set of special interests who capitalized on an outdated and flawed royalty collection system," Salazar said.

The new MMS code of conduct states that employees can no longer solicit or accept gifts or any other items of monetary value from industry representatives with business before the agency; must act in an impartial manner; disclose cases of waste, fraud, abuse, and corruption and should avoid actions that may create the appearance of illegal or unethical behavior. Staffers also cannot engage in employment that conflicts with official responsibilities and must get written approval to do any outside work or activity related to official duties.

"All ideas for reform will be on the table," he said, adding that "We need a system that delivers a fair value to the taxpayer, is straightforward and transparent, and is less vulnerable to the type of abuses we have seen."

Salazar will get credit for quickly tackling corruption at his new department, but some observers still hope for further action. "It’s a first step, but we don’t know what the second one is, or how big it will be," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which counts several thousand Interior employees as members.

One of the reasons for ethical lapses at MMS appears to have been a perception that the agency viewed oil and gas companies as partners, rather than an industry requiring regulation on behalf of taxpayers, Ruch said.

Beyond MMS, there have been several recent examples of criminal or unethical behavior across the Interior Department, including the case of former deputy Interior secretary Steven Griles, who was convicted in 2007 for lying to a Senate committee about his connections to Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Word of Salazar's changes first came yesterday when he appeared at the daily White House press briefing. Earlier this week, he also announced a separate review of the department's ethics policies.

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 29, 2009; 4:36 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments  
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On the face of it, it seems like a good idea in keeping with the Pres' desire for more efficiency and transparency - but time will be the ultimate judge as to how truly effective this "move" might be!!! Let's hope that any new players will not resume the "business-as-usual" of the past 8 years.

Posted by: last2makesense | February 2, 2009 5:39 PM | Report abuse

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