December 18, 2007 in Nation/World

Ethics panel at Interior tightly controlled

Matthew Daly Associated Press
 

WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has quietly revised the department’s ethics policy so a review panel can only consider matters referred to it by two of the department’s top officials.

A Kempthorne spokesman said the change clarified how the ethics panel would receive complaints, but an environmental group said Kempthorne was weakening his own ethics policy before it could even take effect.

“Dirk Kempthorne proclaimed ethical fidelity like a lion but has pursued it like a lamb,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Ruch’s group revealed the ethics change after receiving documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Ruch said Kempthorne secretly scaled back an ethics plan he announced last summer with great fanfare. The plan was widely seen as a response to a series of ethics violations at the department, including the conviction of former Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, who was sentenced to 10 months in prison for lying to senators in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Another former official, Julie MacDonald, resigned as a deputy assistant secretary after the department’s inspector general found she had bullied scientists and improperly leaked information about endangered species.

In a June 27 memo, Kempthorne announced a 10-point plan he said would make Interior “a model of an ethical workplace.” The centerpiece was a “conduct accountability board” that would review allegations of wrongdoing.

The change to the conduct accountability board – made July 25 but not announced by the Interior Department – states that the board can only review matters referred to it by Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett or Kempthorne’s chief of staff, Brian Waidmann.

In other words, said Ruch, if Griles was still at Interior “he could have determined whether his own egregious ethical lapses would be eligible for board review. So much for ethics being job one.”

Spokesman Chris Paolino said Kempthorne created the accountability board and has no interest in weakening it. The revision was intended to clarify how the board – an informal group that does not have its own office or staff – would handle complaints, Paolino said.

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