Washington, DC — Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has introduced “a 10-point plan” to transform his scandal-ridden agency into “a model of an ethical workplace,” according to a directive released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The centerpiece of the plan – the creation of a new Conduct Accountability Board – is off to a rocky start with the abrupt resignation of its chair, Mark Limbaugh, the Assistant Secretary for Water and Science, two days after Kempthorne’s announcement.
The Kempthorne plan comes as Interior is tarred by an ethical taint unrivalled since the Teapot Dome affair 85 years ago. Like Teapot Dome, some of Interior’s problems stem from cozy dealings with oil and gas interests but, unlike Teapot Dome, Interior is also now buffeted by scandals involving Indian tribes, water interests and scientific fraud. Last week, Steve Griles, the former number two Interior official, was sent to prison for obstructing a probe into influence peddling at Interior by convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. At the same time, new congressional investigations are opening into political manipulation by Vice President Cheney leading to the massive Klamath River fish-kill and revolving door concerns arising from top Bureau of Reclamation officials now representing big California Central Valley irrigators.
Announced on June 27, 2007, Kempthorne’s plan includes hiring more ethics lawyers, revising disciplinary procedures, cracking down on inappropriate internet use and putting a new integrity motto “on each employee’s badge as a constant reminder of their responsibilities to the public trust.” A new Conduct and Accountability Board to review the “fairness” of discipline meted out to employees would have been led by Mark Limbaugh, who departs in mid-July to “pursue opportunities in the private sector here in Washington, D.C.”, according to an e-mail he sent out last Friday. His departure leaves three of five assistant secretary slots at Interior vacant.
“The problem at Interior is not its civil servants but its political appointees; so Secretary Kempthorne’s crackdown is like blaming poultry for predation by foxes in the henhouse,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is hard to take Secretary Kempthorne’s plan seriously since he has yet to do any of the hard work of cleaning out the reeking stables in his own headquarters.”
In particular, PEER points to the following as contrasting with Sec. Kempthorne’s new ethics drive:
· The failure of Sec. Kempthorne to condemn the conduct of Julie MacDonald, who resigned following a report about her improper alteration of scientific documents and sharing confidential drafts with industry groups. Lynn Scarlett, who supervised MacDonald and approved a $9,628 bonus for her in March 2005, serves as Kempthorne’s top deputy. Scarlett is also tasked with articulating Interior’s “core values” to employees;
· The retention of former Dick Cheney aide Paul Hoffman and top Griles deputy Jim Cason to oversee personnel standards at Interior. Ruch calls Hoffman and Cason “the flying goon squad who act as special interest enforcers” at Interior; and
· The continuing four-year legal battle by Interior to block reinstatement of Teresa Chambers as Chief of the U.S. Park Police. Chambers was fired by Hoffman for honestly answering questions from a Washington Post reporter.
“Deception is rewarded at Interior which is why people like Julie MacDonald get cash bonuses,” Ruch added. “It would be astonishingly refreshing to see even one person rewarded at Interior for telling the truth.”