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Corruption in interior

September 11, 2008

What is the institutional culture that permits the senior management of a federal agency to engage in an extended practice of conflict of interest, exchange of gifts, drugs, and sex, and corrupt collusion with energy companies leading to the loss of millions of dollars of revenue for the Federal budget?  These allegations are contained in a series of reports issued today by the inspector general of the Department of Interior, concerning the practices of the Minerals Management Service, the division of the Department of Interior responsible for collecting billions of dollars in royalties from energy companies (New York Times article, Washington Post article).

What these investigative findings look like from the outside is fairly simple: officials who are in positions to convey favorable treatment to major businesses, who profit from this position in the most venal way imaginable.  It looks quite a bit like a very ordinary kind of big-city corruption — except that it is occurring within a major Federal agency, under the supervision of the President of the United States.

So it’s a tough question: what explains this behavior?  Is it greed?  Is it contempt for the fiduciary obligations that officials in these roles have to the public?  Is it a deep blindness to the meaning of the conduct?

And what explains the blindness of higher-level supervisors to these apparently widespread practices?  Where is the accountability that our system of civil administration must depend upon?  Where was the Secretary of the Interior during this period of abuse?  Where were the effective management structures that could give managers at each level the confidence he/she needed that behavior within his/her scope was honest and mission-driven?

And while we’re asking tough questions, let’s ask another: why is it that the Department of Justice has decided not to pursue charges against the most senior officials engaged in these practices?  Are these officials above the law?  Are the standards governing official misconduct more exacting in Detroit than in Washington?  Does the Department of Justice intend to give the impression that the improper exercise of the powers of office is excusable, if the party affiliation of the officials in question is aligned with the executive branch?

How much self-dealing and hoodwinking of the public will American voters tolerate before they insist on a change of party and executive behavior?

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