BLM director takes new look at ethics ruling

Ex-regulator now advocate

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The head of the federal Bureau of Land Management wants investigators to reopen an inquiry into the case of a former regulator accused by a watchdog group of taking a “stroll through the revolving door” between government and the oil and gas industry.

The recent request by BLM Director Bob Abbey comes amid renewed questions about whether government ethics officials erred after they learned that Steve Henke, a manager for a BLM field office in New Mexico overseeing 1.8 million acres of public land, was planning to take a job as the head of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

The nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight (POGO) said the move presented a conflict of interest because Mr. Abbey regulated oil and gas industry for the government, and he would be in a position to trade on his insider knowledge and contacts in his new role advocating for the industry.

Instead, government ethics officials ruled there was no need for any post-employment “revolving door” restrictions in Mr. Henke’s case. He left the government and took the trade group job earlier this year.

But last week, POGO railed against what it called the “bungled ethics ruling,” citing previously undisclosed internal e-mails it obtained through an open-records request in which Mr. Henke sent a writing sample from his government computer as part of his application to the oil and gas group.

Mr. Henke, who contacted ethics officials about his career move, noted in his writing sample that the oil and gas association “must be aware of and involved in planning efforts at the federal, state and local levels to positively influence decisions that potentially affect our members’ access to resources.”

Last week, POGO petitioned Mr. Abbey and the Department of Interior to revise the ethics ruling and investigate whether any violations occurred. A BLM spokesman earlier this month told The Washington Times the agency had no plans to reopen an inquiry, but that apparently changed by the end of last week.

Mr. Abbey sent a letter to the Interior Department’s office of inspector general asking the watchdog agency to “renew its investigative inquiries regarding certain questionable activities” that may have occurred during the tenure of Steve Henke, to include activities which eventually led to his employment by the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.”

Mr. Abbey’s Oct. 18 letter doesn’t cite POGO by name, but there’s little doubt that the group is the source for what he called “new information” he obtained concerning Mr. Henke. The letter was written days after POGO’s letter to Mr. Abbey and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

In a brief telephone interview earlier this month, Mr. Henke said he sought advice from ethics officials when taking the job and that there was nothing amiss in the agency’s rulings on how his transition from government service was handled.

“The agency has already ruled on this,” he said, adding that he had not seen POGO’s letter and was unaware that the group had obtained his e-mail through an open-records request. “They keep trying to make a case out of this and connect the dots where there aren’t dots to be connected.”

POGO hailed the move to investigate the ethics ruling in Mr. Henke’s case.

“Why does it take a punch in the gut to get [the Department of] Interior to do anything on ethics?” asked POGO’s executive director, Danielle Brian. “This is an obvious first step that BLM needs to take in order to assure the public that the agency takes a serious approach to ethics.”

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