Saturday, January 31, 2009

Salazar to revisit scandals at Int

By JUDITH KOHLER Associated Press Writer

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday that he will revisit a sex-and-drugs scandal that rocked his agency in his bid to clean up ethical lapses at the nation's biggest landowner.

Telling reporters that "there's a new sheriff in town," Salazar visited the Colorado office of the Minerals Management Service to tell employees there he plans a fresh review of unethical behavior at the agency.

More than a half dozen workers at the Colorado office were disciplined or fired last year after they were accused of using drugs, having sex with oil and gas industry representatives and accepting gifts from them.

"We will be directing a re-examination of the criminal disposition of matters that were investigated," Salazar said during a wind-whipped news conference outside the MMS office in the Denver Federal Center.

Salazar, a former Colorado senator, said he'll review those actions to determine if they were handled properly. The review will be led by his chief of staff, Tom Strickland, the former U.S. attorney for Colorado.

"As I read the very extensive reports that had been prepared by the inspector general, I have some lingering questions," Salazar said. "So what I want to do is make sure the findings that he made and the recommendations that were made by the inspector general and by the others are being faithfully implemented and that the dispositions that were made by the Department of Justice were in fact were the correct dispositions."

The department will also review the discipline and firings of employees involved in the scandal publicized after an Interior Inspector General's report issued last September.

The report described a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" in the office from 2002 through 2006. During that time, the report found some employees were getting drunk and having sex with oil company personnel. It also highlighted instances where co-workers in the office used cocaine and marijuana.

Flanked by Strickland and Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney, Salazar said he spoke to several hundred MMS employees before the news conference about his plans and a new strict code of ethics that will discourage "even the appearance of impropriety."

The department will also review the various reports and recommendations, including from the General Accounting Office, for reforming the MMS and possibly restructure the federal royalty program to ensure that taxpayers are getting a fair return on public resources.

The reaction from employees to his announcements was mixed, Salazar said. There is concern about the reviews, but Salazar said he told them that he considers most of the employees "fine, upstanding public servants."

The inspector general's report accused 13 former and current Interior Department employees in Denver and Washington of misconduct, including influencing contracts and working part-time as private oil consultants.

David Smith, MMS spokesman, declined Thursday to say how many people were disciplined or fired, citing privacy concerns.

Two former employees based in Washington pleaded guilty — one for violating conflict-of-interest law, the other for violating post-government employment restrictions. Devaney has questioned why the Justice Department decided against pursuing two other former employees for allegedly rigging contracts.

Since his Jan. 20 confirmation as head of Interior, Salazar has promised a thorough review of ethical misconduct. He says the actions of a few, including political appointees, has unfairly tarnished the department, which oversees 500 million acres of federal land, including national parks and employs 67,000.

Salazar has cited the 2007 criminal conviction of Steven Griles, former deputy Interior secretary, who pleaded guilty to lying to a Senate committee about influence peddling and his association with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

High-ranking Interior Department officials in the Bush administration were accused of ignoring science in favor of politics on such issues as protecting endangered species, offshore drilling management of parks and other federal lands.

The Interior Department last year reversed seven rulings by Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant overseeing the Fish and Wildlife Service, that denied endangered species increased protection. An investigation found that MacDonald had applied political pressure in those cases.

The Interior Department has a budget of $15.8 billion and oversees programs ranging from protecting endangered species to issuing oil and gas leases.

Last year it collected $23 billion in royalties from oil and gas taken from federal land and waters.


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