Tom Strickland exits Interior, chased by big bucks

The news that "lobbyist lawyer" Tom Strickland, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's chief of staff for a hectic two years, is now taking a job with British Petroleum's law firm in its battles with his former boss over the Deepwater Horizon mess made a big splash in the Denver Post , but not too many other places.

That is, after all, what government regulators do after their public service -- take highly lucrative jobs working for the regulated.

Strickland has vowed not to work directly on BP matters at the well-heeled WilmerHale firm, and that sort of delicate firewall seems to satisfy what passes for ethical standards in Washington these days. But anyone who thinks Strickland was hired because he's a smoke-snorting litigator, rather than due to his insider savvy and vast array of political connections, probably believes former Interior Secretary Gale Norton landed as general counsel at Royal Dutch Shell because of her outstanding briefs on mineral-rights issues.

It's an old story: high-ranking government appointees are touted for their vast experience in the private sector, then parlay their time at the public trough into high-end lobbying and legal work, as a kind of delayed compensation for their years of settling for a measly government salary. If there was ever a time when government service was seen as an end in itself, rather than a rite of passage leading to a well-burnished pot of gold, it's long gone.

The embrace of an erstwhile opponent is nothing new to Strickland, whose two bids for a Senate seat in Colorado were compromised by the contributions he received from fat corporate clients and major polluters, contradicting his claims of being a man of the people and the environmental candidate.

Ironically, Strickland did much to aid Salazar's efforts to clean up the ethical quagmires at Interior that developed in the Bush years. But one of his most widely reported acts there was not his best moment. When the BP spill began, he and his staff at Interior underestimated the scope of the disaster, and he went ahead with a "working" rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. He had to be hauled out by Park Service helicopter a few days later to deal with the growing crisis.

Enjoy the buffet, Tom.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "The resurrection of Tom Strickland."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast