Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bush's Interior Department: Completely Corrupt by Design

It's hard for a lame duck president in his final days in office to make the big headlines he used to get, and short of an assassination attempt or a random shoe-throwing attack abroad, the president is typically treated with quiet disinterest by the media. This is a shame, because one of the most widespread department-wide displays of corruption and scandal is playing out right now in George W. Bush's Department of the Interior.

Lots of information over the past two or three years has been revealed showing the amount of brazen corruption in the department, but most people have ignored it, quite possibly because they don't give a shit about the goings-on of the vaguely-named Interior. Or it could be that it's the least surprising cabinet-level department to be influenced by cronyism from the top. I mean, if you had to pick just one department in the executive branch that would be most influenced by the anti-environmental pro-oil Bush 43, wouldn't it be Interior, a department responsible for both wildlife protection and regulating oil companies?

So how has Bush hollowed out Interior from the interior? By putting in place corrupt executives and officials who had compelling interests in loosening Department of the Interior regulations. It started off early. Two members of George W. Bush's pre-inauguration transition team were J. Steven Griles, the future Deputy Secretary of the Interior and a coal-industry lobbyist who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in 2007; and a disgraced Indian affairs lobbyist known as Jack Abramoff. The first Bush secretary of the Interior, Coloradoan Gale Norton, now works for Royal Dutch Shell oil company in their oil-shale department. Her biggest claim-to-fame was opening up Yellowstone National Park to snowmobiles, but her most lasting legacy will be the rules loosening regulation of federal lands and opening them up to developers and hunters.

Bush's second and current Secretary of the Interior is Dirk Kempthorne, who worked for a chemical manufacturing company before becoming mayor of Boise and eventually a U.S. senator and then Governor of Idaho. Not surprisingly, the chemical company's man Kempthorne sought to undermine the Safe Drinking Water Act once he got to the U.S. Senate, and was given zeros year after year by the League of Conservation Voters in their annual legislative scorecards. As Secretary of the Interior, Kempthorne has constantly worked to reduce protections to endangered species. He was the inaugural recipient of the Rubber Dodo Award from the Center for Biological Diversity for holding the record of the longest amount of time without a new federally protected species (at the time, 472 days). Earlier this month, Kempthorne presented a change to the Endangered Species Act that would remove oversight of projects that potentially could be harmful to endangered species.

But all of that stuff is legal! There are plenty of illegal ethics violations and straight up crimes to report from the Interior Department too! The above-mentioned former Deputy Secretary of the Interior J. Steven Griles was alleged to have steered policy and oil and gas leases to his own lobbying clients. He was forced to resign and pleaded guilty to Obstruction, but he is once again an energy company lobbyist. Former Secretary Gale Norton was accused of dismissing or ignoring 25 ethics violations against Griles in a 2006 Inspector General's report of Interior Department's "culture of managerial irresponsibility and lack or accountability".

In 2007, the Inspector General found broad failure by the Minerals Management Service to collect the $10 billion in royalties owed by oil companies to the government, mostly because the government agency in charge was "too cozy with oil companies". That report also found that individuals who leaked information about the corrupt activities of management were often retaliated against.

Further Inspector General reports released this year threw alcohol, drugs and sex into the "ethical failures" mix in the ultimate example of getting too "cozy" with industry. But more damning is the report released earlier this week showing how the Interior Department often "interfered with scientific work in order to limit protections for species at risk of becoming extinct." This is the report where we learned about Julie MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife. The Inspector General Earl Devaney had this to say:

"Ms. MacDonald’s narrow focus on her own agenda not only endangered the Endangered Species Act, it opened the door for countless land-use decisions and developments that would have never otherwise been considered.”

Mr. Devaney also criticized several of Ms. MacDonald’s colleagues at the agency who, he said, aided and abetted “her attempts to interfere with the science” and “the unwritten policy to exclude as many areas as practicable from critical habitat determinations.”

Julie MacDonald has a degree in civil engineering and worked as a hydraulic engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation before becoming an administrator. As a civil engineer who has worked on many hydraulic engineering projects (okay, a handful of detention ponds in Lawton), I know that environmental protections are annoying to work with and seem like bureaucratic nonsense to comply with. Julie MacDonald probably took a similar mindset with her as she ascended the bureaucratic ladder. Maybe the Fish and Wildlife service should have hired more of a conservation-type rather than a developer-type to run their conservation-type program. But such is the way of upper management decisions in Bush's Interior Department.

Change can't come soon enough for this country, but the Department of the Interior is perhaps most in need of it. One hopes that Colorado Senator Ken Salazar (the most recent senate candidate who I voted for who actually won) will be up to the task.


eckarts said...

Well, I sincerely hope that the new appointments fare better - you can rate them after they have been in office a while. Even so, I would guess that the mentality that seems to sit in those departments is probably so moribund that it will be difficult to change.
In South Africa we actually have very good environmental laws, but lack the capacity and the political will to implement them. So Departments are now making 'exceptions' to enable them to by-pass them. That's on the official side, forgetting about all the shenanigans that go on behind the scenes.
I've tried to capture some of this in my novel Patterns of Change, but it really is only the tip of the iceberg. The general public also don't care because it doesn't affect them directly.
Eckart Schumann

Jacob said...

If anything, the presence of "alcohol, drugs and sex" is a mitigating factor.