SEPTEMBER 18, 2009
A Bush cabinet member who headed a notoriously corrupt federal agency long infested with cronyism and incompetence is being criminally investigated for illegally using her position to help a major oil company that later hired her.
Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, once Colorado Attorney General, helped her current employer—one of the world’s largest oil producers—get three lucrative government deals when she headed the massive agency with a $16 billion annual budget and more than 70,000 employees. Over the years the oil shale leases on federal land will earn the company (Shell) hundreds of billions of dollars.
A few months after Shell secured the coveted government deals in 2006 Norton resigned her cabinet post and subsequently got hired by Shell as in-house counsel. The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General found sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to make a formal criminal referral to federal prosecutors. They must now determine whether Norton illegally used her office to help a company that she was negotiating her next job with. The facts certainly support that theory.
Federal law prohibits government officials from discussing employment with a company if the parties are involved in dealings that could benefit the firm. Norton may have also violated a blanket federal law, known as denial of honest services, which states that government officials can be criminally prosecuted for violating the public’s trust. In Norton’s case, she obviously steered government business to friends or a favored company.
This sort of fraud is nothing new at the Department of Interior, which has a documented history of waste, ethical failure and abuse that dates back a decade. In 2007 the agency’s longtime inspector general told a congressional panel that "short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior" and that "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."
A year later the inspector general published three scathing reports detailing how agency officials handling billions of dollars in oil royalties rigged contracts, secretly worked for oil companies as consultants and accepted valuable gifts from the massive firms they were supposedly overseeing.
Who could forget the Interior Department deputy secretary (Steven Griles) sentenced to jail for his involvement in the biggest lobbying scandal to hit Washington? Griles obstructed justice by concealing his unique and close relationship with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, repeatedly lying about it to Senate investigators.
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