Corruption at the Interior Dept; Dec 31, 2008
Times-News, Twin Falls
How could things go so wrong for Dirk Kempthorne at the Department of the Interior?
The former Idaho governor and U.S. senator and his predecessor, Gale Norton, presided over the most corrupt period in the agency since Albert Fall and the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s.
"Short of a crime, anything goes at the Department of the Interior," said the agency's inspector general, Earl Devaney.
Devaney has been a busy man during Kempthorne's 33-month tenure as secretary of the interior, which ends when Barack Obama is sworn in as president on Jan. 20. This month Devaney reported to Congress that on 15 separate occasions the department's political appointees had weakened protections for endangered species against the advice of the agency's scientists, whose work they either ignored or distorted.
Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks, resigned last year after an earlier report found she had run roughshod over agency scientists and violated federal rules by giving internal documents to industry lobbyists.
In September, Devaney delivered three reports to Congress detailing widespread corruption in the Minerals Management Service, the division responsible for granting offshore oil leases and collecting royalties. According to Devaney, officials accepted gifts, steered contracts to favored clients and engaged in drugs and sex with oil company employees.
Just in the past few months, the Interior Department sold oil and gas leases near Arches and Dinosaur national parks in Utah, shortened the public comment period for actions under the Endangered Species Act, and opened up 3,700 miles of new pipeline and power corridors across public lands in the West.
Even Kempthorne's successes were muted by ideology and flawed science. In declaring the polar bear threatened because of climate change, he said the action "should not open the door to use the (endangered species list) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources." Then he issued special rules exempting from the law offshore oil and gas drilling in prime polar bear habitat off Alaska's north coast.
It's been disheartening to watch a man who was an honest politician and an independent thinker back in Idaho become part of the corrupt culture of the agency he leads - and become captive to Vice President Dick Cheney's philosophy that the Interior Department is essentially in business to assist oil and gas companies.
Simply put, Secretary Kempthorne botched his stewardship of the public lands in his care. Americans - and Idahoans - deserved better.