Monday, September 15, 2008

Scandal at the Department of Interior Shows that Checks and Balances Are Crucial

The Inspector General’s Office of the Department of Interior has recently released a report with a tabloid-like story about their three investigations into the Department of Interior’s Mineral’s Managment Service (MMS). Among its other responsibilities, this agency manages off-shore oil leases.

The Inspector General found that this agency has operated with “a culture of ethical failure,” linking government officials in Denver and in Washington, D.C. to numerous ethical, and in some cases criminal, lapses. The wrongdoing included rigging contracts so that a former employee would win the bid and allowing companies to revise their bids downward after they won contracts to buy oil and gas.

The report expressed concern about the types of socializing that occurred within the agency and with oil companies. For instance, government officials received “a wide array of gifts and gratuities from oil and gas companies” with whom the agency was conducting official business. The gifts—including golf, ski and paintball outings; meals; and tickets to a concert, and professional sports games—were accepted with “prodigious frequency.” The Inspector General went on to describe concern over a culture at the office of “substance abuse and promiscuity,” as well as to highlight the problem of alcohol abuse in the socializing that occurred between oil companies and the government officials.

This report’s shocking details demonstrate that even those who work in the government agencies tasked with representing the public, can sometimes wander far off course. Thankfully, our nation has implemented a checks and balances system throughout our government and within many of our laws.

The Endangered Species Act is one such law. Before a federal agency can pursue a project that could have the potential of harming endangered species (e.g., an off-shore oil lease, a new highway, or a mine), the Act requires that the agency consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Brock Evans, Endangered Species Coalition President, eloquently described, in the previous blog post, how (and why) the Bush administration is attempting to torpedo this bedrock foundation of the Endangered Species Act.

The MMS scandal shows us just how dangerous it is to remove the checks and balances of the Endangered Species Act. The expert wildlife biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are needed now more than ever to ensure that decisions about federal projects are made according to the highest scientific and ethical standards.

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