Back when I was reflecting on why Gayle Norton resigned her position as Interior Secretary, I thought she might be resigning just three steps ahead of the Abramoff investigations. She still might. But now I think it just as likely that she resigned just before the Inspector General started investigating how her Interior Department gave away our country's wealth to the oil companies.
The Justice Department is investigating whether the director of a multibillion-dollar oil-trading program at the Interior Department has been paid as a consultant for oil companies hoping for contracts.
The director of the program and three subordinates, all based in Denver, have been transferred to different jobs and have been ordered to cease all contacts with the oil industry until the investigation is completed some time next spring, according to officials involved.
This appears to have been the scam: Some time ago, the Interior Department introduced a "royalties in kind" program, which allowed oil companies to pay for the privilege of drilling for oil on our land in kind--in oil and gas--rather than in cold hard cash. The gimmick is that it was supposed to facilitate accounting. Up until recently (don't worry--I'm going to figure out these dates), the oil went into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).* But the SPR apparently is all filled up now, so recently the US government started contracting with companies to sell the oil on the "open market." But, as these things are bound to happen in the BushCo world, we didn't take open bids for the contracts to sell the oil. We apparently just gave companies with ties to a bunch of Interior Department employees in Denver the contracts, which of course meant we got less money than we otherwise would have.
This scam, of course, comes on top of a bunch of other scams that mean we get less for our oil than we should.
Those investigations are focused on allegations that the agency ordered its own auditors to abandon claims of cheating by large oil companies; that the agency’s arcane rules for calculating sales value and royalties make it easier for companies to understate their obligations; and that the agency’s basic sources of data are riddled with inaccuracies and are unreliable.
(Are you beginning to think "Enron accounting"? Because I am.)
Now, it appears that this particular scam post-dates Norton's March resignation. So there's no reason, really, to think that Norton is involved in the latest scam. Except for the fact that it is all taking place in Colorado, her stomping grounds. The folks in charge of the "royalties in kind" program, working out of Denver, have apparently also been "consulting" with companies with which they have "potentially improper social ties." You know--you rub my back, I steal from taxpayers to benefit you?
In any case, I suspect this one may get big. You think maybe Shell will grow uncomfortable with their new
back-scratcher general counsel?
How appropriate--this Administration will begin with an oil scandal. And it looks like it will end with one, too.
*There is, of course, a scam here too. BushCo was filling the SPR at a time of record oil prices, much to the chagrin of observers (I used to think Bush was right to do so, because we really are going to need the SPR when Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Venezuela withdraw their oil from the market because of our fiddling--but now I suspect there were motives of greed, and not security). Which meant that the oil companies were paying us in a currency that was worth much more than puny little greenbacks.