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Wyden, Kempthorne and endangered species

Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden

Dirk Kempthorne

Dirk Kempthorne

This would seem to fall into the “helluva story” category, although the Northwest news media silence about it has been almost absolute – the Eugene Register-Guard (in a useful and telling editorial), Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (and out of region, the Federal Times and Forbes) seem to have been almost alone in delivering even succinct reports about it. So consider: This is about Oregon’s senior senator asking questions about what may be important ethical issues in a major federal agency with important importance to the Northwest as well as with national import – an agency led by a well-known northwesterner.

In the case of some senators this might be business as usual, but Senator Ron Wyden is usually low-key and diplomatic. So some attention should be paid when words like these show up in one of his press releases (from July 19):

“Mr. Limbaugh’s switch from water regulator to water lobbyist is ominous, in part, because of the Department’s recent history of scandals involving industry players moving through Department ranks while serving industry interests,” wrote Wyden, identifying Ms. MacDonald and recently convicted, former Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles as examples. “Frankly, it’s not always clear where these Department leaders put their loyalties.”

Wyden wrote that, on July 20, directly to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

Here’s some background.

When Kempthorne, who had been Idaho’s governor, took over at Interior in May 2006, he was headed into a troubled agency laced with scandals ranging from from its Indian tribe section to oil lease management. Those were of course not Kempthorne’s doing, and there’s been some indication since that some of the problem areas have been improved.

Not necessarily eliminated. On April 30 this year, Julie MacDonald, the department’s deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks (for a year under Kempthorne), resigned after indications of scandal. A detailed report by the California Contra Costa Times said that “In an apparent conflict of interest, a former high-ranking Bush administration official helped remove a fish from the list of threatened and endangered species in a decision that eased an economic threat to her farm near Dixon. Julie MacDonald resigned . . . a month after the department’s office of inspector general issued a scathing report that accused her of altering scientific reports in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species programs and improperly leaking internal reports to industry groups and friends. The report said nothing about MacDonald’s participation in the decision to remove the Sacramento splittail from protection under the Endangered Species Act. But documents show she edited the decision on the fish, at one point softening scientists’ conclusion that the species ‘is likely’ experiencing a population decline to say it ‘may be’ in such a decline.” (Her involvement with the farm is not small; disclosure reports say she earns as much as $1 million a year from it.)

In May, Representatives George Miller of California and Nick Rahall of West Virginia launched a House investigation into the MacDonald situation and into a review of how endangered species decisions have been made.

President George W. Bush nominated Lyle Laverty of Colorado to replace McDonald. Wyden promptly placed a hold – freezing Senate action – on the Laverty appointment, because of concerns arising out of the MacDonald situation, and “until he was convinced that ethics were being taking seriously at the Department of the Interior.” (That in itself is strong language for Wyden.)

On June 27, Kempthorne wrote back to Wyden, saying efforts were underway to investigate the MacDonald situation and ensure adherence to proper ethics. To that end, he told Wyden that a fellow Idahoan, Mark Linbaugh, the assistant secretary for water and science, would be in charge, and would chair the department’s new Conduct Accountability Board.

Problem: 16 days later, Limbaugh resigned from Interior, to go to work as a water industry lobbyist. He will work for the Ferguson Group, which remarked that his “invaluable experiences on the ground, combined with his policy knowledge, will enable Mark to provide unique strategic guidance to a broad range of our clients.”

All of this, understandably, got Wyden’s attention. Here’s the text of his next, July 20, letter to Kempthorne:

Thank you for your June 27 letter regarding the much-needed ethics reform you’re implementing at the Interior Department in the wake of several scandals.

In your letter you identify Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Mark Limbaugh as one of the Department officials charged with reviewing the ethics issues raised in the Inspector General’s report on Julie MacDonald. Your letter and the accompanying summary of your “10-Point Plan to Make the Department of the Interior a Model of an Ethical Workplace” also identify Mr. Limbaugh as chairman of a newly constituted Conduct Accountability Board. The Board is described as being responsible for “ensuring consistency and fairness in the management of conduct and discipline cases” and Mr. Limbaugh is referred to as “a person of impeccable integrity.”

This sounded promising, but I since have been informed that as of July 13, literally within days of your letter, Mr. Limbaugh resigned from the Department to take a job with the Ferguson Group. The Ferguson Group represents local and state water agencies with interests before the Interior Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress. As the firm states on its Web site: “We represent more irrigation districts, water districts, and local water agencies than any other Washington firm.” Mr. Limbaugh’s hiring represents a good catch for the Ferguson Group, which promises to “build client relationships with top agency officials.” He was the senior appointee in charge of water issues at the Interior Department for two years.

However, Mr. Limbaugh’s departure raises two sets of questions to which I’d like answers.

How will you replace Mr. Limbaugh as a key official in your ethics reform plan? In his absence, who will be responsible for the Department’s response to the Julie MacDonald scandal, including rectifying the damage done by her political interference in scientific advice on Endangered Species Act decisions? Who will take his seat as chairman of the new Conduct Accountability Board? How often did the board meet under Mr. Limbaugh and how often has it met since he resigned?

Also, Mr. Limbaugh’s switch from water regulator to water lobbyist is ominous, in part, because of the Department’s recent history of scandals involving industry players moving through Department ranks while serving industry interests, such as energy lobbyist J. Steven Griles, who became Deputy Secretary before committing the corrupt acts that led to a felony conviction and prison sentence. Additionally, one of the revelations about Ms. MacDonald, whose family owns an agricultural business in California, was that she secretly leaked internal Department records to agricultural business groups in California currently suing the Department. Frankly, it’s not always clear where these Department leaders put their loyalties.

Federal ethics regulations place a variety of limits on contacts that former senior employees like Mr. Limbaugh may have with the agencies in which they served. Mr. Limbaugh is expressly prohibited from all contacts for one year and then from a variety of other contacts regarding matters in which he was personally involved at the agency. What steps has the Department taken, or will it take, to identify matters Mr. Limbaugh is restricted from being involved in on behalf of the Ferguson Group? How will the Department ensure that Mr. Limbaugh is not involved as a lobbyist in any issue he was personally involved in while working at the Department?

Thank you for your continued attempts to address this matter.

There’s apparently been no response yet. Will be interesting to see what if any response does emerge; in the meantime, Wyden is maintaining his hold on Laverty.

Story here, anyone?

ALSO The department’s ethics web page may be of interest. It appears not to have been updated this year.

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