Ken Salazar wants windmills in the ocean, but first he'll have to save the Interior Department

On January 21, Ken Salazar walked into the Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., and found a crush of employees waiting for him. It was his first day on the job, less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama's inauguration and the Colorado senator's own speedy confirmation as Secretary of the Interior. He'd expected a cordial reception, but nothing quite like this.

There were "literally thousands of people" lined up to greet him, he recalls, bunching up along the grand staircase at the entrance and forming a gauntlet along the muraled corridors. They clapped and cheered and reached out to shake his hand. It was like a scene from one of the Rocky movies or the frenetic climax of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — the put-upon workers welcoming a new champion, a liberator.

The emotion of the moment wasn't lost on Salazar. These people, he told himself, are ready for a change. After pressing the flesh, he eventually made his way to the Secretary's suite, where another bit of symbolism awaited him: the 100-square-foot executive bathroom, recently renovated by his predecessor, Dirk Kempthorne, at a reported cost of $236,000. Complete with shower, fridge, floor-to-ceiling wood paneling and gleaming commode, the imperial crapper had made headlines in the last days of the Bush presidency, a lavish token of his administration's estrangement from the average citizen.

Facing a legacy of crumbling parks infrastructure, ravaged public lands and stunning mismanagement, the new Secretary had bigger worries than the bathroom flap. But Salazar also knew that the DOI's numerous ethics scandals would have to be his first order of business; he'd vowed during his confirmation hearing to "clean up the mess" and restore integrity to the department.

Eight days into the new regime, he flew back to Colorado, determined to send the right message. He met briefly with employees at the Lakewood office of the Minerals Management Service, an obscure agency that happens to be one of the most vital sources of income for the federal government, second only to the IRS; last year MMS collected $23 billion in oil and gas royalties from companies drilling on federal lands or offshore. Then, decked out in a light suit, with trademark cowboy hat and bolo tie, Salazar strolled into a bone-chilling wind to hold an outdoor press conference. He was calling for further review of disciplinary actions resulting from a sex-and-drugs probe at the Lakewood office, he said, and instituting a new code of conduct for all agency employees.

"We are no longer doing business as usual," he declared. "There's a new sheriff in town."

Flanking Salazar on his right was his ethics czar, Tom Strickland — the former U.S. attorney who'd joined DOI as chief of staff and would soon be nominated as the Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. To his left was Earl Devaney, the DOI inspector general whose investigation of MMS had uncovered "a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity," including a supervisor who allegedly pressured employees for cocaine and blow jobs, and others who accepted gifts, booze, meals, trips and, in some cases, sex from executives of oil and gas companies ("Crossing Over," September 18, 2008). Devaney had been a voice in the wilderness during the Bush years, telling Congress in 2006 that, "short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior." By the time of Salazar's press conference, several DOI officials had been prosecuted for actual crimes, including two MMS employees, and Devaney was about to become the overseer of the new administration's $787 billion stimulus package.

The press conference was a masterful piece of theater, right down to the cowboy hat and the "new sheriff" line. What better way to declare that America's natural resources are going to be handled differently than by denouncing those unfaithful stewards who'd actually been in bed with the energy industry? What better means to present the new Secretary as a man of gumption and grit, ready to chase the varmints out of town?

The substance behind the script, though, wasn't quite so obvious. The new code of conduct that Salazar's people unveiled has a great deal in common with the old code, except for a stringent ban on even minimal-value gifts. And the bad behavior it's supposed to address seems insignificant compared to the greater scandal inside MMS: the billions of dollars that the government has lost in unpaid royalties because of the agency's sweetheart contracts and inadequate auditing procedures ("Fighting Mad," November 16, 2006). For example, the Lakewood employees Devaney investigated were assigned to the "Royalty in Kind" program, which allows companies to pay a substantial portion of their royalties in the form of actual oil and gas production rather than cash; a 2008 General Accounting Office analysis found that the self-reporting "honor system" used in the program is far less reliable than traditional audits and is part of a larger data-management problem that could be cheating taxpayers out of huge sums.