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House Committee Targets Interior Department on Ethics

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Steve Black, Counsel to the Secretary of the Interior, at left | Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior/Flickr/Creative Commons License


The Republican-controlled House of Representatives' war on Obama administration agencies seems to have spread. ReWire's reported previously on the House Committee on Oversight and Government reform's campaign of harassment against the Department of Energy; now, the House Natural Resources Committee seems to be doing the same thing with the Interior Department.

Not that there isn't potential scandal for the Natural Resources Committee to investigate. In a letter sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar by Committee chair Doc Hastings (R-WA) on Thursday, March 14, the committee's majority asked some pertinent if somewhat dated questions about potential conflicts of interest involving Interior Department staff, including a romantic entanglement between Steve Black, Counselor to the Interior Secretary who oversaw renewable energy policy on public lands, and Manal Yamout, a former aide to California governor Jerry Brown who now works for renewable energy developer NextEra as Director of Federal Governmental Affairs.

ReWire will wait here patiently as readers get the obligatory joke about Yamout's job title out of their systems.

This isn't a scandal per se; Black followed due diligence by reporting the relationship to Interior's ethics office, and was instructed to recuse himself from any dealings with NextEra. Hastings' letter suggests that that recusal may not be as straightforward as we'd all hope:

[T]he Los Angeles Times reported last year that Counselor to the Secretary Steve Black has been instructed to recuse himself from matters involving NextEra Energy, a developer of solar and wind energy projects, due to a romantic relationship Mr. Black was reported to have had with a former renewable energy advisor to the Governor of California currently working as a lobbyist for the company. Among the projects NextEra is developing are the 250 mw Genesis Solar Energy Project and the 750 mw McCoy Solar Energy Project on federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management ("BLM") near Blythe, California. Mr. Black leads the Department's Renewable Energy Policy Group, a group of federal and state officials established by Secretarial order in 2009 to coordinate review and processing of renewable energy projects in California, and serves as a senior advisor in the Obama Administration on renewable energy issues. The Los Angeles Times article also states Mr. Black discussed the relationship with the lobbyist with the Department's Ethics Office in the fall of 2011 and was later told to recuse himself, but it does not state when the relationship began, when the recusal became effective, or what steps have been taken to ensure Mr. Black's actions have not violated federal ethics laws.... On March 13, 2013, the Department approved the final record of decision in support of NextEra's McCoy Solar Energy Project.

Time will tell whether there's been misconduct, either deliberate or inadvertent, or whether this inquiry is essentially a fishing expedition on the part of House leadership. The letter also makes inquiries about former BLM director Bob Abbey's role in a sale of former BLM lands in southern Nevada, and Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Tony Babauta's role in awarding certain grants. Babuta has been placed on leave pending investigation by the Interior Department's Office of the Inspector General.

Should investigation of Black's relationship with Yamout uncover improprieties, it wouldn't be the first time such a thing had happened at the Interior Department. In the waning months of the Bush administration, the Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) -- which collects royalties from oil and gas drilling on public lands on and offshore -- was caught up in a scandal. According to the New York Times, MMS officials "frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives."

To Hastings' credit, he did provide at least lip service to the notion of reforming the MMS to avoid future ethical lapses despite the fact that the worst of those happened on his party's watch:

Chairman Hastings Unveils Reorganization Proposal

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