Reprinted from E&E Daily with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net

By Scott Streater, E&E reporter

The Interior Department is being accused by a government watchdog group of ignoring possible ethics violations by a former Bureau of Land Management field office manager who allegedly accepted gifts from the owner of an oil company regulated by the agency.

The Project on Government Oversight sent a letter this week to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and BLM Director Bob Abbey questioning why BLM never disciplined James Murkin, the former BLM field manager in Casper, Wyo. Instead, Murkin was promoted to deputy director of BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System and Community Partnerships, according to POGO.

Although Murkin is no longer with the agency, a 2009 Inspector General’s report found that while he was a manager in the Casper office, he failed to disclose regular meetings with the oil company owner and received $916.55 worth of materials from another company owned by the executive to construct a new patio at Murkin’s home. Murkin failed to prepay for the supplies, as required by BLM ethics rules, though he did pay later, according to the IG report.

Murkin also received two dinners from the oil company owner, whose name is redacted from the IG report. Murkin told IG investigators that he estimated the two meals were worth $140.

According to POGO’s letter, the BLM Casper Field Office, at the same time Murkin accepted the gifts, was considering a land swap deal that would have benefited the company. It is not clear from the public record that the land swap took place, but it involved exchanging 30 acres owned by the company for more than 2,000 acres of BLM land, according to the group.

“The problems in the Casper office point to a systemic problem in the Bureau of Land Management and its enforcement of ethical guidelines,” Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director, wrote in the March 2 letter to Salazar and Abbey. “Our review shows that officials in the bureau either didn’t care about what was going on in Casper or, just as damning, lacked a basic understanding of their own rules.”

Brian asked Salazar and Abbey to direct the IG’s office to investigate whether Casper field office managers have cultivated “inappropriate relationships” with regulated industries in the state and to determine whether employees in the field office have been disciplined for raising concerns.

In a statement, BLM headquarters said officials were reviewing Brian’s letter. The agency did not respond to specific questions concerning Murkin’s term of employment or whether he was disciplined in the wake of the IG report.

But Murkin clearly realized that the company owner “was probably a prohibited source” and that he “probably should have removed [him] from the decision-making process regarding the land exchange,” according to the 2009 IG report.

“I goofed,” Murkin told an investigating agent during a November 2009 interview. “Not my finest hour, I screwed this one up.”

Ongoing concern

The new allegations follow similar complaints last made year by several groups, including POGO, that Interior ignored evidence that the former director of BLM’s Farmington, N.M., field office violated the agency’s ethics code in dealings with a state oil and gas trade association and at least one major oil and gas firm.

Steve Henke, who left BLM last year and is now president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, applied for that job while still with the agency, and less than a month after BLM settled a lawsuit with industry groups challenging revisions to the Farmington District’s resource management plan (RMP).

Environmental groups have complained that the RMP settlement will result in roughly 10,000 new oil and gas wells being drilled in northwest New Mexico.

The Interior IG had also investigated the Henke matter and issued a report last June that revealed Henke “took gifts from Williams Exploration and Production, a prohibited source, in the form of golf [tournament] tickets, lodging and meals.”

The IG report also concluded Henke misused BLM travel funds to attend the 2007 PGA Championship in Tulsa, Okla., “as a guest of Williams E&P.” In addition, the report noted that in 2007 Henke “solicited approximately $8,000 in donations from Williams E&P” to support a youth baseball league in which he had a personal interest. In that same year, Merrion Oil & Gas Corp. also provided an internship to a person close to Henke, although the individual’s identification is redacted in the IG report.

Henke was not disciplined by the agency, even though Henke’s superiors were aware of many of the details highlighted in the IG report while Henke was still a BLM employee.

Abbey told environmental groups in October that he considered the matter closed because Henke no longer worked for the agency. But he abruptly reversed course two weeks later, asking the IG to further investigate the circumstances surrounding Henke’s appointment with the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

BLM declined to update the status of that investigation.

POGO’s Brian said in the latest letter to Salazar that the Henke and Murkin cases are similar in that both men “took annual ethics training on receiving gifts from prohibited sources” and “should have known better because they were presumably trained to know better.”

She added: “We regret that this is the second time we have had to write concerning BLM’s inaction or seeming indifference to BLM managers’ coziness with industry. We urge you to take action to ensure that all Interior employees have an appropriate arm’s length relationship with the industries they oversee.”

Emphasis on ethics

In its statement responding to the Murkin letter, BLM said that ethics issues are a part of ongoing efforts “to change the way the Department of the Interior does business.”

For example, BLM added, Salazar “implemented new ethics guidelines when he became Secretary of the Interior. Those new guidelines include employee ethics training, providing more financial and personnel resources, increasing the authority of ethics officers, and requiring greater employee involvement in evaluating performance, accountability and compliance.”

Last fall, Jeff Krauss, BLM’s public affairs division chief in Washington, D.C., said the agency “does not tolerate unethical behavior and enforces strict adherence to ethical standards for all its employees,” adding, “Ethics are a basic obligation of public service.”

BLM also last year held an “Ethics Awareness Week” for employees nationwide. The effort included daily audio “ethics refresher” sessions for employees led by Markci Metcalf, BLM’s deputy ethics attorney.

READ a letter from POGO Executive Director Danielle Brians to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

READ OR DOWNLOAD the United States Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General November 2009 report on allegations of favoritism among U.S. BLM employees in Casper during consideration of the proposed Eagle Creek land exchange in Wyoming.

READ OR DOWNLOAD the United States Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General  June 2006 report on allegations of potential ethics violations at the Casper field office of the U.S. BLM.

READ OR DOWLOAD the United States Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General June 2010 report on allegations that Steven Henke, U.S. BLM district manager in Farmington, N.M., was too close to oil and gas industry officials and made decisions to benefit companies based on personal relationships, rather than the good of BLM.

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Published on March 8, 2011

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