by Texas Nate, Thu Jan 29, 2009 at 07:12:00 AM EST
Ken Salazar, the new Interior Secretary, said at a White House briefing this afternoon that he would undertake a top-to-bottom review of ethical misconduct at his agency, reports the Associated Press.
Salazar cited several of the department's lowest moments during the Bush years, and said that probes closed by the Bush administration could be reopened.
As we've noted at TPMmuckraker, Interior employees were found to have partied and had sex with employes from oil and gas companies they were supposed to be regulating. And Deputy Interior Secretary Steven Griles pleaded guilty to corruption in connection with the Jack Abramoff case.
That's all well and good, or rather bad and nasty, but the biggest scandals at DOI have gotten the least attention.
However, for the past six years, government whistleblowers have alleged that a lack of oversight, deficient procedures, and cozy industry ties between MMS officials and oil and gas companies have created a system that allows the companies to underpay the federal government for scarce resources extracted from public lands.
On September 19th, DOI Inspector General Earl Devaney echoed these concerns in his report "Minerals Management Service (MMS): False Claims Allegations." The report describes a process systemically plagued by ethical lapses, process failures, mismanagement and conflicts of interest. The IG report highlights the need for vigorous oversight of the oil and gas industry with an eye towards real accountability.
Taxpayers for Common Sense and Project on Government Oversight assert the MMS's closeness with its clients taints its mission to pursue uncollected royalties for the Treasury. This has been especially true, they say, in the six years since the Bush administration instituted a new process called "compliance review." Beth Daley, an investigator for Project on Government Oversight, said there has been a fundamental change with auditors being told not to audit oil companies that hold federal leases: "It was never a great culture, but it has taken a turn for the worse." Before, the agency relied more on auditing to determine whether proper royalties were being levied and paid.
As a result of these alleged abuses, whistleblowers have brought forth legal actions claiming oil and gas companies systematically undervalue the amount and value of resources removed from public and Native American lands, with one case (Burlington Resources) recently settling for more than $97 million. Evidence in these cases suggests oil companies prefer to risk federal penalties rather than pay the actual amounts owed since the prospect of real penalties (particularly under this Administration) stands so remote.
I'm looking forward to a thorough accounting of all the crap that went on at the DOI/MMS during the Bush era. I imagine the cost to the tax payers will come into the billions. Let's hope the fines to the oil companies are comparable.