Washington, DC — An ethics initiative unveiled with great fanfare this summer by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has been quietly scaled back, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Other elements of the Secretary’s “10-point plan” to transform the scandal-ridden agency into “a model of an ethical workplace” remain in limbo.
The plan’s centerpiece, outlined in a June 27, 2007 all-employee e-mail, was the creation of a Conduct Accountability Board “for ensuring consistency and fairness in the management of conduct and discipline cases.” This step, however, turned out to be less significant than touted:
- Jurisdiction of the Board was limited to cases involving “Executive Level” employees – well less than 1% of the Interior workforce;
- On July 25th, about a month after he commissioned it, Sec. Kempthorne amended its charter so that the Board could only review matters “referred to it by the Deputy Secretary and Chief of Staff.” This means that if former Deputy Secretary Steven Griles, now serving time in federal prison, was still at Interior he could have determined whether his own egregious ethical lapses would be eligible for Board review; and
- Initially, the Board was chaired by Mark Limbaugh, an Assistant Secretary whom Kempthorne described as a “person of impeccable integrity,” who promptly resigned to become a lobbyist. It is now chaired by the Park Service Director.
“Dirk Kempthorne proclaimed ethical fidelity like a lion but has pursued it like a lamb,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “The Department of Interior has not been so tainted since Teapot Dome.”
Another plank of the ethics plan was incorporating “best ethics practices.” The Secretary claimed that Interior already had 60 out of 80 best ethics practices in place but had “an action plan to implement the remaining 20 practices and also to enhance existing practices.” On July 13th, PEER submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Secretary’s office for the “action plan.” In a response dated November 7th, Interior withheld the action plan as “pre-decisional,” suggesting that the matter is still undecided.
Ironically, a list of ethics “model practices” compiled by Interior includes “publicizing the outcome of ethics program reviews, describing what actions the agency plans to take to correct any deficiencies.” It also lists “explaining to employees, and when appropriate the public, how specific agency determinations were made.” Both prescriptions apparently do not apply to Interior’s own ethics policies and practices.
One huge blind spot in Interior’s ethics program is the growing political manipulation of agency science as exemplified by the case of former Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald, who resigned in April. Last month, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reversed a number of MacDonald’s interventions to prevent listing of animals under the Endangered Species Act. Federal courts are striking down still other scientific alterations made by MacDonald, a non-scientist. Despite the notoriety and seriousness of MacDonald’s transgressions, the Secretary’s plan does not address the issue, nor has he commented on her actions.
According to congressional testimony on July 31, 2007, the Interior Inspector General had urged Kempthorne to address the issue of political interference with science. At that time, Sec. Kempthorne would not commit to act on this recommendation from the Inspector General – and still has not.
“As long as Interior continues to condone, if not encourage, scientific fraud, it is hard to take any ethics pronouncements from the Secretary seriously,” Ruch added, noting that the Secretary’s leadership team approved a cash bonus for MacDonald during the period she was inappropriately rewriting scientific findings. “Unfortunately, Julie MacDonald is not an isolated case; she is only one of a pack of ethics elephants in the living room that Interior will not discuss.”