Obama's Sheriff

Under Bush, the Interior Department was as lawless as the Wild West. But can the new secretary bring the wrongdoers to justice?

June 8, 2010 5:30 PM ET

This article originally appeared in RS 1076 from April 16, 2009. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full issue. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.

As top officials in the Obama administration settle into their new offices, they are just now beginning to uncover some of the worst abuses committed by their predecessors. And of all the corruption that characterized the Bush years, none is more shocking – and more responsible for lasting damage – than the pervasive scandals and cronyism at the federal agency charged with managing one-fifth of America's land.

Under Bush, the Interior Department became a lawless bureaucracy that actively worked to enrich the nation's most powerful energy interests. Top-level officials secretly allowed oil companies to keep billions in royalties owed to taxpayers, opened up 26 million acres of federal land to oil and gas drilling, denied wilderness protection to another 220 million acres, rewrote scientific reports to eliminate safeguards for endangered species, and even snorted coke and had sex with the very oil interests they were supposed to be regulating. "It was Dodge City," says Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who chairs the Senate Energy Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests.

Tim Dickinson blogs about all the news that fits from the Beltway and beyond in the National Affairs blog.

But unlike some Democrats in Washington who insist that it's time to "turn the page" on past misdeeds, newly appointed Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is already showing a determination to hold the Bush administration accountable for its wrongdoing. Sporting his signature Stetson, the secretary casts himself as the man in the white hat – a new sheriff in town, come to restore law and order. In his first two months in office, Salazar has done more than simply reverse many of the Bush administration's worst moves, including the authorization of gas drilling within sight of Utah's national parks. He and his top deputy, Tom Strickland – both of whom served as attorney general of Colorado – have also initiated a top-to-bottom investigation of what Salazar calls the "blatant and criminal conflicts of interest and self-dealing" that took place in Interior.

"We've got to make sure this mess gets cleaned up," Salazar tells Rolling Stone, revealing that he has already referred evidence of wrongdoing to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. According to the secretary, he's looking at "criminal behavior that extended to the very highest levels. The 'anything goes' era is over."

During the Bush era, the scandals over America's wilderness areas were centered at the Mineral Management Service, the Denver office that serves as Interior's collection agency. The government auctions off the right to drill on public lands, and taxpayers are supposed to receive a cut of any profits that energy firms make on the oil and gas they extract. Last year, MMS collected more than $23 billion in royalties from drilling – second in revenues only to the IRS. "The oil companies were basically running MMS during the Bush years," says Bobby Maxwell, a top auditor for the service who was forced out of his job in 2005, despite having recovered more than $500 million in unpaid royalties during his career.

Maxwell and other auditors sensed the change in direction as soon as Bush took office: Collections of unpaid royalties from oil and gas companies plunged from $300 million a year to less than $50 million. "The focus changed," says Maxwell. "It was 'Quit doing detailed audits. Stop getting records from oil companies.' " The push was no longer to collect money owed to taxpayers for drilling on public land – it was to provide what the Bush administration euphemistically called "royalty relief" to big energy firms.

MMS not only slashed audits by 22 percent, it even prohibited auditors from recouping money in cases involving clear evidence of fraud. In what would become the costliest scandal, it also looked the other way when it learned that, because of a massive bureaucratic fuck-up, it had failed to collect billions in royalties for deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, the Bush administration fought to let oil companies keep the money, and a judge appointed by Bush recently overturned royalty collections on 75 percent of all oil produced in the Gulf. Should the ruling stand, taxpayers will forfeit as much as $53 billion owed by Big Oil.

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