Friday, September 15, 2006

Kempthorne's chance to redefine a mediocre career

Rarely are federal bureaucrats handed such political plums as Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne found on his Washington desk this week.

Idaho's former governor has a damning report from Interior's inspector general that meticulously portrays an agency ridden with corrupt ethics and blemished by decisions of politically appointed hacks pandering to industries they should be policing.

Kempthorne thus is provided an incontestable green light for a major crackdown at Interior by installing some rigid ethical personnel rules and announcing to industry groups that Interior no longer is in the hip pocket of commercial freebooters who expect privileged treatment.

This is an important moment for Kempthorne. In no time, using the inspector general report as a matrix for reforms, he could rehabilitate the reputation and image that has dogged him throughout his career as Idaho governor—that of mediocre performance and an unwillingness to confront powerful industries.

Phrases in Inspector General Earl Devaney's report constitute marching orders for Kempthorne: "Short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of Interior.

"Ethics failures on the part of senior department officials—taking the form of appearances of impropriety, favoritism and bias—have been routinely dismissed with a promise 'not to do it again.' "

"Defending the indefensible."

During the final years of the Clinton administration, Interior concealed goofs in writing oil leases that'll cost the federal treasury some $10 billion in royalties over the next 10 years.

Special outrage in the IG's report was reserved for former Deputy Interior Secretary Steve Griles, a onetime oil and gas industry lobbyist appointed by President Bush. Devaney described Griles as "a train wreck waiting to happen." Griles resigned after he was exposed for trying to fix a $2 million contract to a high-tech firm that had been one of his lobbying clients as well as pushing decisions favoring former clients.

And herein lies a potential pitfall for Kempthorne. Since much of the report's criticisms involved actions during President Bush's first term under Interior Secretary Gale Norton, will the White House give Kempthorne its blessing to reverse the carefree atmosphere created by Norton and allow him to impose tough reforms that could anger industry supporters of Bush?

Or does keeping industry happy outweigh public interests?

If the White House once again orders an Interior secretary to turn a blind eye to ethical lapses and to continue palsy-walsy policies toward industries that exploit public lands, and Kempthorne goes along to get along, then the former governor will join a commonplace aggregation of politicians whose oaths to public good meaninglessly mocked the once-cherished code of public service.

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