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A Very 21st-Century Scandal

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Denver -- Reporters periodically ask me for good story leads. For five years I've been urging them to dig into the oil and gas leasing programs of the Department of the Interior. The biggest presidential financial scandals in American history -- Grant and Crédit Mobilier, Harding and Teapot Dome, Eisenhower and offshore oil properties, have all involved giveaways and corruption around resources on public lands. The big money in this administration just had to be in steering leases to cronies.

Yesterday's news -- that one third of the employees of the Minerals Management Service in charge of a critical oil and gas leasing program engaged in corrupt activities, including cocaine dealing, bid rigging, and vacations all paid for by oil companies like Chevron and Shell -- was, in a sense, hardly surprising. A year and a half ago, the Inspector General of the Interior Department charged that employees of the same MMS division had helped oil companies avoid paying the royalties they owed the American people.  That didn't get as much attention -- no sex.

This one, however, is plenty juicy. What makes it so 21st century is that in this case instead of business providing men who worked for the government with women, it was women who worked for the government that were having sex with oil-industry agents. One of the companies involved, Shell, also hired Gale Norton, after she left the Department of the Interior, where she presided over many of the abuses. Another company, Chevron, delayed the report substantially by refusing to let its employees talk to the Inspector General. And the Department of Justice is refusing to prosecute former Minerals Management Service director Gregory W. Smith and former associate director of the Minerals Revenue Management program Lucy Querques Denett, who, the report says, manipulated contracts to ensure they were awarded to former Interior employees.

Now this would seem a perfect opportunity for John McCain and Sarah Palin to express some indignation, burnish their "reformer" credentials, and pledge to clean up the paid-for-by-Big Oil mess in Washington. But thus far -- silence! Could it be that the awkward timing of this report, right before Congress resumes debating whether or not to demand that Big Oil pay the royalties it owes, and which MMS enabled it to shirk, has the pair tongue-tied?

Or is the media simply asleep at the switch? Stay tuned. By the way, my guess is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. Given that billions in leases have been awarded, surely someone in the seedy but ever greedy ranks of the Bush administration managed to get away with some real money. Keep digging, investigators.