Underdog Has His Day

There's more than a few million bucks on the line when former federal auditor Bobby Maxwell (pictured) squares off against an Oklahoma energy giant in Denver's federal courthouse this week.

At stake is nothing less than the integrity of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the future of its Minerals Management Service, the agency Maxwell used to work for — until, very much against his bosses' wishes, he decided to take on Kerr-McGee, accusing the company of cheating the taxpayers out of millions of dollars in royalties from oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

The MMS fired Maxwell two years ago (and later gave him a hefty settlement while denying that his termination was retaliatory). That didn't stop him from filing a False Claims Act against Kerr-McGee on behalf of the government. Since the feds haven't intervened in the case, Maxwell could collect up to 30 percent of the proceeds, as much as $15 or $20 million, if he's proven right in court.

These days the MMS is under investigation by Congress, after numerous reports on lax supervision of energy leases on public lands; see our exclusive interview with Maxwell as well as subsequent coverage of the rising tide of mutiny at MMS for a little perspective on the issues at hand. Maxwell is squaring off against a horde of corporate lawyers and the agency he worked for practically since its creation, but the trial will tell if he has the numbers on his side. -- Alan Prendergast