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Hi folks,

As a few of you many know, I am part of a progressive, online news start-up called Mint Press News. I'll be cross-posting a few of my articles from there here to give the DKos community a taste of what we have on offer. My latest is on the endemic corruption at the Department of the Interior and what we can do about it.

For Americans living east of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the Department of the Interior is almost a non-entity. Known for running the National Park Service but not much else, the public “back east” is one that is generally ignorant of the role the Department of the Interior plays, via its Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and other Interior agencies, in determining the fate of millions upon millions of acres of publicly-owned and federally-administered land. This needs to change.
Intro

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For those who don’t know, the Interior Department manages just over 250 million surface acres, most by far to be found in the American West, with its total portfolio comprising nearly one-eighth the land mass of the country. Additionally, BLM administers the regulation of some 700 million subsurface acres of mineral deposits throughout the country. Rights to offshore minerals are also overseen by Interior through its Bureau of Ocean Energy Management,Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), formerly known as the Minerals Management Service. So, to put it in perspective, when you fly over the Rockies from New York or Chicago to Los Angeles or any other big city out West, if you look down, you will mostly likely be seeing vast stretches of land owned, well, by you.

Yes, that’s right, you, and unfortunately every other U.S. citizen, are by far the biggest landlord in the country. Unfortunate because you, and everyone else, are absentee landlords that have forgotten about their property and have left it up to others to decide what to do with it.

This absenteeism has made proper management of federal lands – whether for economic development or environmental preservation – deeply problematic, politically contentious, and prone to endemic corruption.

Some examples of corruption:
The latest evidence of this comes in the form of a letter sent by the House Natural Resources Committee to the Interior Department inquiring about potential conflicts of interest by several Interior officials, including a counselor to the Interior Secretary whose primary responsibility was to oversee the development of renewable energy projects on federal land.

Love apparently got in the way as the counselor in question, Steve Black, became romantically involved with one Manal Yomout, a former aide to California governor Jerry Brown and current Director of Federal Government Affairs for a renewable energy company.

While no accusations of wrongdoing have been made yet, there are questions as to the timing of the relationship’s disclosure in relation to subsequent approval of Ms. Yomout’s company’s project by the federal government.

In another instance of possible impropriety, the Committee’s letter also raised issues with the awarding of $528,000 in fees to a company co-owned by the former director of the BLM, Bob Abbey, for the arrangement of a sale of federal lands to a private developer on behalf of the city of Henderson, Nevada. According to a newspaper report cited by the Committee, Abbey, while serving at BLM director in 2011, agreed to help a partner in his firm deal with BLM in regard to the prospective land sale. Soon after retiring as director in 2012, BLM approved the sale of land for $10.4 million and Abbey returned as a named partner to the firm a month later – raising suspicions of dirty dealing and prompting an investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general.

Lest one think this is sour grapes by Republican House members out to make life miserable for the Obama administration, think again. The good folks at the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) have also dug up shady goings on at Interior and BLM. In a 2010 letter to the Interior Secretary, POGO presented the findings of its investigation into BLM’s ethical practices which, of course, were found lacking. According to POGO:

“BLM’s senior management did not appropriately respond to the Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) findings that BLM Farmington, New Mexico, District Manager Steve Henke accepted gifts from oil companies without reporting them. BLM’s management did not issue warnings, institute disciplinary actions, or otherwise hold Mr. Henke accountable. Nor did BLM’s ethics officials exercise sufficient due diligence when apprised of Mr. Henke’s stroll through the revolving door to go work as the president of an oil and gas association.”

Some of you may recall similar corruption bedeviling Interior during the Bush administration:

Then there is perhaps the granddaddy of corruption scandals at Interior, revealed in 2008, where MMS officials overseeing oil and gas leases worth billions were so corrupt that they were having sex and taking drugs with energy industry representatives in a sort of fossil-fuel rendition of Studio 54 excess. This went on, say reports, for four years!

The systemic corruption and incompetence in administering federal lands and overseeing the public’s mineral rights consistently seen at the Department of the Interior are the result of several factors. The first is the relative low priority that environmental and land management concerns receive in the U.S. press. When an obvious disaster occurs, such as in the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill, the public pays attention for a time, but most of Interior’s problems with corruption and oversight stem from the fact that when it comes to land management, the devil is in the details of day-to-day administration and enforcement of lands faraway from most of the public’s lives and concerns.

In the rest of my piece I argue that regardless of administration, there are structural factors at work that make Interior more prone to corruption than other parts of the government - largely due to who staffs it and the highly politicized nature of what it does. I also offer a potential solution, but I would love to hear what folks here have to say about it.

Is there a way to make Interior less prone to corruption?

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