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Sex, blow and government secrecy

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Shortly before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Department of Interior announced it was carving up several turkeys caught in the sex, drugs and graft scandal at the Minerals Management Service office in Lakewood. After months of costly investigation and blistering official reports on brazen conflicts of interest at the troubled agency, the DOI decided to take disciplinary action against a handful of badly behaved employees, ranging from written reprimand to suspension to termination.

But under federal personnel rules, the DOI isn't saying who was punished or how -- even though the names of all the major miscreants are detailed in the investigative reports and have been widely published. That's led to a lot of indignant huffing among pundits, including this editorial in the Rocky Mountain News. After all, if you can't find out what the government's going to do with watchdogs who take gifts from (and, in some cases, sleep with) executives of the energy companies they were supposed to be keeping in line, what's the point of investigating them? Yet this lust for public pillorying, understandable as it might be, misses the point.

The folks caught in the investigation were, by and large, flunkies ceding to petty temptations while a greater fraud -- the failure to collect billions in oil and gas royalties owed for drilling on public lands -- was being perpetrated with the encouragement and blessing of the Bush administration. The disastrous laissez-faire culture at MMS that prompted this scandal was the subject of my article "Crossing Over" and the companion blog "Sleaze, sex, cocaine, and--oh yeah--billions of lost revenues at Bush's Interior." For more on how the trouble started, see our earlier coverage, "Fighting Mad" and "Duke of Oil."

It might be reassuring, on some level, to know that DOI is finally getting around to dealing with some of the dirty laundry at one of its most obscure but vital agencies. But a bigger broom is going to be needed to sweep out the culture of greed and pro-industry bias in MMS -- and soon. This is, after all, the same "service" that is going to be making critical decisions about the juiciest spots for offshore drilling in the next few months. -- Alan Prendergast

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