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Interior Department Tarnished, New Chief Says

POSTED: 05:04 PM ET, 01/28/2009 by Derek Kravitz

Ken Salazar

Calling for a thorough review of past ethical problems at the Interior Department, new secretary Ken Salazar pledged today a "long term-effort to enact comprehensive, top-to-bottom reforms."

Salazar, a former Democratic senator from Colorado, told a group of reporters at the White House that the agency "has been tarnished by ethical lapses and criminal behavior that has extended to the very highest levels of government."

He specifically referred to two scandals: the conviction of J. Steven Griles, the former deputy Interior secretary who pleaded guilty in 2007 to lying about his connections to disgraced uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff; and the sex-and-drugs scandal that surfaced this summer involving more than a dozen employees at the Minerals Management Service, which handles domestic drilling revenues.

The new Interior chief also said he wants his own review of the scandals that have plagued the department in recent years, including what's been done to fix them.

Salazar plans to meet tomorrow with some of the Interior Department's 67,000 employees, at the Minerals Management Service's (MMS) headquarters in Lakewood, Colo.

In September, a two-year investigation by the Interior Department's inspector general into the MMS surfaced, finding a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" where officials in Colorado attended parties with oil and gas marketers, accepted gifts including ski trips, sports tickets and golf outings and steered contracts to favored clients. Two retired employees-turned-consultants have pleaded guilty to federal conflict-of-interest charges.

Since then, several of the employees identified in the reports were fired, placed on administrative leave or transferred out of the MMS's royalty-in-kind program, which allows energy companies to pay the government in oil and gas, rather than cash. Last year, it raked in more than $4 billion in royalties.

In September, former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the ethics office at the royalty program would be expanded, with the hiring of an attorney/adviser to provide "invaluable ethics support and program oversight" and that royalty office managers would now report to a Denver-based supervisor instead of a government official in Washington.

And in October, officials announced the royalty-in-kind program would be overseen by the department's asset management program, incorporating the 10-year-old program into other operations so it's not "just hanging out to the side."

By Derek Kravitz |  January 28, 2009; 5:04 PM ET
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