Washington, DC — The official investigation into an attempted $120 million taxpayer rip-off failed to find anyone responsible, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The official report recently issued by the U.S. Department of Interior Office of the Inspector General blamed the oil buyout scandal on “the cultural mindset with DOI [Department of Interior] and politics” but tacitly absolved all of the top officials who commissioned and approved the arrangement.
Under the deal, the Interior Department offered the Collier family, prominent supporters of both Bush brothers, more than twelve times the assessed value of its oil and gas holdings in the Big Cypress National Preserve, adjacent to the Florida Everglades. This hugely inflated buyout was announced in a May 2002 White House ceremony intended to burnish the environmental credentials of both Bushes.
The nearly three-year investigation did find that Interior Secretary Gale Norton placed one of her top aides, Ann Klee (now the General Counsel for the EPA) in charge of closing the deal but made no other mention of Norton except to “commend” her for actions taken after another, similar land exchange scandal in Utah. Instead, Earl Devaney, the Interior Inspector General, repeatedly cited unnamed “political appointees” or vague forces. One key but typical passage of the IG report reads as follows:
“Exploiting a combination of public policy, politics, and environmentalism, which was being fueled by the demoralization of career DOI employees, at one extreme, and sycophantical enabling, at the other, [Collier Resources Company] took complete advantage of a negotiating environment weighted heavily in its favor.”
“This Inspector General has made it his job to ensure that emerging Teapot Domes remain teapot tempests,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Devaney’s office has taken similar dives in several recent high-profile investigations into former top Interior officials, such as former Deputy Steven Griles and Solicitor William Myers. “This so-called investigation into the Big Cypress buyout would be a joke except that it couldn’t locate a premise or a punchline, either.”
In the report, Assistant Secretary Craig Manson, the official who actually signed the buyout contract, claimed that he was only “ankle deep” in the deal but said Klee was “hip deep.” Despite witnesses telling the IG about pressure to “get it done” from officials “at a much higher level,” Devaney did not find any individual responsibility, except to fault two Interior lawyers who had no decision-making authority.
“While the IG found that Collier ‘prostituted’ the process, it takes two to prostitute – so whose services did Collier buy?” asked Ruch, referring to Devaney as the “Deflector General.” “The Inspector General is a presidential pleasure appointee and it appears Devaney has decided to keep his job by scapegoating hapless mid-level officials while letting the big fish swim by untouched.”
Besides its enormous payout, the deal was also notable because it ran counter to President Bush’s drive to increase energy production on public lands and the Administration’s overall moratorium on parkland purchases. Despite a buyout contract being signed, Congress has yet to appropriate the $120 million, so the deal remains in limbo.