Gazette editorial praising Gale Norton neglected ethics “failures” during her tenure at Interior

An editorial in the January 6 edition of The Gazette of Colorado Springs praised former Interior Secretary Gale Norton for “serv[ing] honorably, as far as we know.” But the editorial omitted reported concerns about the ethical culture of the department under Norton's leadership.

In a January 6 “Our View” editorial praising former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, The Gazette of Colorado Springs stated, “She served honorably, as far as we know.” However, the editorial failed to mention any of the issues that prompted the Interior Department's inspector general to publicly question the department's integrity during Norton's tenure.

The Gazette introduced its editorial (an online version appeared January 5) by stating that Norton -- the former Colorado attorney general who resigned as Interior secretary on March 10, 2006, after having served continuously since January 31, 2001 -- reportedly had decided recently “to become an attorney for Royal Dutch Shell.” The editorial asserted that Norton's decision prompted her “detractors on the lunatic fringe [to cite] this as more evidence that the Bush administration is 'in bed' with 'big oil.' ” While Norton's hiring by a major oil developer is not itself indicative of any wrongdoing, The Gazette failed to note the fact -- raised by The New York Times in a December 3, 2006, article -- that the inspector general for the Department of the Interior, Earl E. Devaney, has found significant ethical lapses during Norton's tenure. The article noted that in testimony before a House subcommittee last September, Devaney said, “Short of crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.”

The Times article, “Blowing the Whistle on Big Oil,” reported on Department of Interior whistleblowers -- current and former Interior auditors who are suing oil producers for defrauding the U.S. government on royalty payments with the tacit approval of the department. The article focused on Bobby L. Maxwell, a highly honored 22-year veteran of the department who alleged in his lawsuit that the Kerr-McGee Corp. “bilk[ed] the government out of royalty payments” and that “the Interior Department ignored audits indicating that Kerr-McGee was cheating.” Within two years of receiving a 2003 citation for his work from Norton -- and one week after a federal judge unsealed his lawsuit -- “the Interior Department eliminated [Maxwell's] job in what it called a 'reorganization,' ” according to the Times.

The Times noted that "[t]hree other federal auditors, who once worked for Mr. Maxwell and still work at the Interior Department, have since filed similar suits of their own against other energy companies," and it further reported that Shell -- along with Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips -- participated in a failed attempt to block Maxwell's lawsuit.

The article also reported that “Mr. Maxwell says his frustrations with the Interior Department escalated after the Bush administration took office in 2001”:

The Interior Department's top priorities became increasing domestic oil and gas production, offering more incentives to drillers in the Gulf of Mexico and pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other wilderness areas to drilling. The department trimmed spending on enforcement and cut back on auditors, and sped up approvals for drilling applications.

The agency's senior ranks also became more heavily populated with officials friendly to the energy industry. For example, its new deputy secretary, J. Steven Griles, worked as an oil industry lobbyist before joining the department, and Chevron and Shell had paid him as an expert witness on their behalf in [an earlier private lawsuit alleging royalty fraud]. Mr. Griles declined to comment. Auditors, according to Mr. Maxwell and many others, were told to devote less energy to time-consuming audits and rely more on a computerized monitoring system called “compliance review.” Auditors complained that the new system was superficial and riddled with technical problems. Even when the new system flagged potential underpayments, Mr. Maxwell said, it often failed to supply conclusive information.

As a December 14, 2006, press release from the office of Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) noted, Devaney, the inspector general, has made two criminal referrals related to an investigation he is conducting of the Interior Department's collection of royalties from the production of oil and gas. Markey said of this development:

The two criminal referrals by the Department of Interior's Inspector General to the FBI and Justice Department are proof positive that the conflicts of interest between Bush Administration regulators and those they regulate in the oil and gas industry are costing the American taxpayers billions in royalty revenues. While Inspector General Devaney has previously said that short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of Interior, it now appears that some actions may have crossed the line into criminal behavior. I am sure that the American people will be shocked by this inexcusable undermining of the public trust.

The release noted that Devaney has indicated that at the end of January he “will issue a report on the whistleblower cases.”

During his September 13, 2006, testimony (accessed through the Nexis database) before the Subcommittee on Energy and Resources, Devaney criticized the Interior Department's environment in which, under Norton, "[e]thics failures on the part of senior Department officials -- taking the form of appearances of impropriety, favoritism, and bias -- have been routinely dismissed with a promise “not to do it again.” Devaney stated:

Numerous OIG reports, which have chronicled such things as complex efforts to hide the true nature of agreements with outside parties; intricate deviations from statutory, regulatory and policy requirements to reach a predetermined end; palpable procurement irregularities; massive project collapses; bonuses awarded to the very people whose programs fail; and indefensible failures to correct deplorable conditions in Indian Country, have been met with vehement challenges to the quality of our audits, evaluations and investigations. Typically, the Department has disputed a number of negligible details contained in our reports, losing sight of -- or, perhaps intentionally eclipsing -- the greater issues, tainting the whole of any given report with trifling details.

Devaney noted “one particularly contentious investigation of a high-level official that we conducted over the course of several years, and which cost my office well over $1 million.” On the day Devaney testified, CBS News reported that Devaney identified the official to reporters as “then-Deputy Secretary Steven Griles,” further noting that “Devaney's office referred 25 potential ethics violations by Griles to the federal ethics office” two years earlier. As Media Matters for America has noted, Griles was entangled with convicted felon Jack Abramoff, who sought illicit influence at the Interior Department on behalf of some of his Indian tribal clients. In his testimony, Devaney recalled that in transmitting the report of the Griles investigation he told Norton:

This is only one in a series of cases in which we have observed an institutional failure to consider the appearance of a particular course of conduct on the part of Departmental employees and officials. It is my hope, however, that this may be the case that changes the ethical culture in the Department.

Addressing the chairman of the subcommittee, Devaney stated, “Clearly ... my hope [for a change in the ethical culture in the Department] was not realized”:

In fact, former Secretary Norton met with me at length and indicated that she accepted this official's admission that he exercised bad judgment, but given his promise not to do so again, she was unwilling to take any action against him.

Devaney concluded his testimony by expressing the hope that the Interior Department culture would improve under Norton's successor, Dirk Kempthorne:

I am hopeful that somehow the Congress, Secretary Kempthorne and I can work together constructively to disassemble this troubling culture at Interior and replace it with a strong, sustainable culture of ethics, responsibility and accountability.

From the editorial “Hounding Norton” in the January 6 edition of The Gazette:

Well, we didn't think she was going to get a job running The Sierra Club. Much is being made in certain circles of Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton's decision to become an attorney for Royal Dutch Shell, a company heavily involved in the development of oil shale in Colorado. Norton's detractors on the lunatic fringe say this as more evidence that the Bush administration is “in bed” with “big oil.”

But we don't think there's anything dishonorable about her career choice. She's been relentlessly vilified by environmentalists since her first day at Interior -- unfairly, in our view -- virtually forcing her into the “enemy camp.” She has to make a living somehow. And the last time we checked, energy extraction is still a legal activity in the United States.


We've seen several reports indicating that Democrats newly in charge of Congress intend to launch investigations of the Bush administration's allegedly nefarious dealings with “big oil,” most of which will undoubtedly devolve into partisan witch hunts, focused on decent people such as Norton. That would be unfortunate. As interior secretary, she served in one of the most thankless jobs in Washington, pushed and pulled by all sides in some of the most emotional and contentious issues there are. She served honorably, as far as we know, and we wish her well in her new endeavors.