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IG Warned Congress About Failures of MMS, Interior

As we've noted frequently, the ethical problems at Interior in general, and the Minerals Management Service (MMS) specifically, are far from new and provide important context to understanding why MMS did not see a major offshore drilling accident like the Deepwater Horizon explosion coming. In 2006 then-Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney gave Congress numerous explicit signs in testimony before the House's Energy and Resources Subcommittee, when he described the culture at the Department of the Interior as one that "sustains managerial irresponsibility and a lack of accountability." It's worth reading the whole thing, which can be found here, but there are a few passages worth highlighting (all emphasis courtesy of POGO):

"I have observed one instance after another when the good work of my office has been dynamically disregarded by the Department. Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior. Ethics 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.' Numerous OIG [Office of Inspector General] 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."

He talked about failures in the Department's ethics office, and how when his office appealed to the Office of Government Ethics, they deferred to Interior:

In one particularly contentious investigation of a high-level official that we conducted over the course of several years...we were met with just such an assault from two different fronts — both the Department and the Office of Government Ethics (OGE)...We were astonished to learn that, following a lengthy and time-consuming analysis, OGE would only opine when they believed that no ethics violation had occurred; they would not opine that an ethics violation had occurred, deferring to the Secretary and her ethics office for such a termination. In this particular case, we had also sharply criticized the Department's ethics office, which is why we referred the matter to OGE.

But most importantly, he highlighted the devastating impact of the revolving door at the Department of the Interior:

I have watched a number of high-level Interior officials leave the Department under the cloud of OIG investigations into bad judgment and misconduct. Absent criminal charges, however, they are sent off in usual fashion, with a party paying tribute to their good service; wishing them well, to spend more time with their family or seek new opportunities in the private sector. This charade does not go unnoticed by the career public servants, many of whom have been witnesses in our investigations. What are these civil servants to think? If those at the top are not held accountable, why should those at lower levels not feel empowered to challenge the call for accountability.

And as proof of these problems trickling down, he cited an employee survey his office conducted:

Over one-third of the respondents believed that discipline for misconduct depended on who committed the offense, rather than the offense itself...At over half of [the public meetings we held], employees reported that supervisors were either not disciplined at all or disciplined more leniently...It is no wonder that a "culture of managerial irresponsibility and lack of accountability" thrives at Interior.
By: Mandy Smithberger
Director, CDI Straus Military Reform Project, POGO

Photograph of Mandy Smithberger Mandy Smithberger is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Energy and Natural Resources

Related Content: Department of the Interior, Energy & Environment, Ethics, Minerals Management Service (MMS), Revolving Door

Authors: Mandy Smithberger

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