A Change at the Top

The Democratic Party lost the presidency in 2000, and George W. Bush and his running mate Dick Cheney were sworn into office on a wet, cold, gray Saturday in January 2001, after long weeks of legal wrangling over who actually had won.

Bush’s transition to power was conducted by his vice-president, Dick Cheney. Cheney had left his $25-million-a-year job as CEO of Halliburton, the oil-field services and construction giant co-headquartered in Dubai and Houston, to run for office in 2000. Cheney was an active executive. In an unheard-ofxiii move, he “seized the initiative” to staff much of Bush’s Cabinet during the hiatus provided by the Florida recount. Cheney, not Bush, announced the appointment of several key transition team officialsxiv.

He selected David J. Gribbin III, a faithful friend from their days together in high school in Casper and at the University of Wyoming, to be the transitional liaison with Congress. To follow his mentor back into politics,xv Gribbin left his job as chief lobbyist for Halliburton. With Gribbin in place, Cheney took charge of negotiations with lawmakers about the legislative agenda.

Cheney chose Thomas Sansonetti, the Cheyenne lawyerxvi and GOP activist, to head the inner-circle team choosing top personnel for the Interior Department.

Sansonetti, who has never held elected office,xvii is a well-known quantity in the Wyoming party and preceded Diemer True as the state’s Republican organizational powerbroker: he was Republican National Committeeman, 1996-2001 (True took over in 2002) and chairman of the state Republican Party from 1983-87 (True was chair 1992-96).  When Craig Thomas won the 1989 special election to replace Cheney, who had left his seat to become George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary, Sansonetti became Thomas’ aide.  A member of the Federalist Societyxviii, Sansonetti was also a lobbyist for the coal industry.

Although the energy industry was represented at all important levels within the incoming administration, industry lobbyists continued their own efforts. According to Newsweek, oil and gas lobbyists met at the American Petroleum Institute offices nine days before the Inauguration to draw up a “wish list” for a Bush energy plan. The list was sent over to the Bush Energy Department transition team. The expansion of the royalty-in-kind program was near the top of the list.

Membership on the Energy Department team was a political plum, and the incoming administration rewarded generous supporters with seats at the table. Men who had given the Bush campaign more than $100,000, like Tom Kuhn, head of the Edison Electric Institute, or more than $200,000, like Enron’s Kenneth Lay, became Energy transition team players.  Some transitional heavyweights were not among the largest contributors, but were important in themselves, as high-level industry lobbyists. Diemer True, at this time chairman of the Independent Petroleum Producers Association, was a team member in Energy, although he and his family had given only $125,000 to state and national Republican parties and candidates in recent election cycles.

The Bush transition team, prevented from occupying the customary federal transition team quarters by the long dispute over who had won the election, had raised its own transition office money and rented a 20,000-square-foot office in a southern Virginia suburb. There it began the work of accepting résumés for 6,125 federal jobs within the new Republican administration’s gift.

To head the critical Department of the Interior, Sansonetti’s team chose Denver oil- and-gas lawyer Gale Norton, a protégée of Reagan’s first Interior Secretary, James G. Watt. Sansonetti had worked with Norton in Watt’s Interior in the ’80s. Like Watt, Norton was a Mountain States Legal Foundation attorney, and like Sansonetti, she was a member of the Federalist Society. Norton was confirmed almost immediately after Bush’s inauguration.

But her department was not fully staffed for months.xix The expansion of the royalty-in-kind program, near the top of the energy industry’s wish list, was going to have to take place in Interior’s Minerals Management Service, which lacked a new leader for some time.  Thomas R. Kitso, who had replaced Cynthia Quarterman in February 1999 and stayed on after January 2001, resigned that November. Deputy secretary of Interior J. Steven Grilesxx announced that Lucy Querques Denettxxi of the Minerals Revenue Management division would be Acting Director until “further notice.”

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  1. I’ve read the story twice now, and while very well researched and reported, I have to come back to my initial thought on Part I, and not to be rude, but what the heck is the story here? I keep waiting for something cool, unethical or interesting to happen…