By Ari Goldberg, Project on Government Oversight
There’s new information to report on ethics problems in the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has been tracking for more than six years.
In 2010, a report from the Inspector General (IG) of the Department of the Interior found that Steve Henke, a District Manager in BLM’s New Mexico field office, accepted gifts from oil and gas companies without reporting them. No action was taken in response to those findings. POGO sent a letter to then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar asking him to investigate BLM for ignoring these ethics violations.
To make matters worse, POGO obtained documents showing BLM ethics officials failed to exercise due diligence when they approved Henke’s move from BLM to become president of—you guessed it—the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association (NMOGA).
At the time, POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian called it “shocking that BLM isn’t concerned with the misconduct of one of its managers, nor his turn through the revolving door to represent the companies he was supposed to have been overseeing.”
“Henke’s new position could present a significant conflict of interest. This should be a no-brainer,” she said.
POGO never heard from Salazar, and, as far as we knew, no action was ever taken.
Now, thanks to a reporter at Greenwire who found a long-buried report that had been kept from the public for more than three years, we know the Interior IG did investigate Henke again, and found a whole host of other violations. In fact, BLM Director Robert Abbey included POGO’s letter to Salazar in his request to the Interior IG for a second investigation.
Although that second investigation found “no evidence” that Henke “violated conflict of interest laws” by going to work for the trade association he was supposed to be regulating at BLM, it did find that he “violated agency policy, federal laws, and the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch” on a range of issues during his time at the agency.
Among other things, investigators determined Henke improperly accepted “meals and other gifts from oil and gas industry representatives,” authorized a local firearms dealer to operate “a commercial shooting range illegally constructed on BLM land,” and “misled” fellow agency officials into advancing the sale of another 160 acres of federal land to friends who wanted to turn it into a commercial wild game hunting park.
What’s more, Henke “made false statements to investigators” reviewing allegations of misconduct and encouraged other agency employees questioned by the IG’s office to do the same, the report says. IG’s investigators concluded that three other BLM employees “provided false statements” during the Henke probe.
Henke retired as president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association last week and told Greenwire that allegations of wrongdoing are “totally false” and called the IG investigation “political” in nature.
Brian, the head of POGO, says the episode highlights the need for three urgent reforms:
“First, the revolving door rules need to be strengthened. It’s preposterous that a person in his government position was able to go and directly work for the Oil and Gas Association without breaking any rules.
“Second, there is a pressing need for IGs to proactively make public their investigations of senior officials—especially if they have been substantiated. It’s outrageous that we learned of this IG report years after the fact and only because a reporter happened to find out about it from a general Freedom of Information request.
“And third, the IG position at the Interior Department needs to be filled without any more delay. It’s not surprising that no law enforcement action was taken in this case in the absence of a strong, confirmed Inspector General.”