- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2000

A grand jury is looking into charges that a watchdog group paid government employees for sensitive information key to a $400 million lawsuit against oil companies, The Washington Times has learned.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has a written contract to share its $7 million portion of the settlement with Robert A. Berman, senior economist at the Interior Department's Office of Policy Analysis, and Robert A. Speir, an Energy Department official.
House staffers and a high-ranking government official confirmed that a grand jury was impaneled to investigate the contract and payments, first reported by The Times.
House investigators say Mr. Berman shared inside information with POGO about the suits charging underpayment of federal royalties that were kept secret and under seal, which allowed them to file a nearly identical suit and cash in on the settlement.
"Federal employees apparently knew about this sealed lawsuit, called their friends at POGO, got them into the lawsuit, and cut a deal to get one third of the take," said Rep. W.J "Billy" Tauzin, Louisiana Republican.
The grand jury convened just days after a July 25 House Resources Committee hearing when the employees, along with Danielle Brian Stockton, director of POGO, lawyer and board member Henry M. Banta were voted in contempt of Congress.
The committee voted to turn over all documents they collected in their investigation to the Justice Department, and the payments are also under investigation by the Interior Department.
"It is probably one of the most corrupt actions by federal employees under a sealed document where they issued information that was confidential to, in fact, receive reimbursement," said Rep. Don Young, Alaska Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee.
Mrs. Stockton said the payments, which so far total $750,000, are public service awards to Mr. Berman and Mr. Speir for blowing the whistle on the royalty underpayments. However, Justice Department officials testified under oath during one hearing that POGO was told not to issue the payments.
The House delayed the final contempt-of-Congress vote three times in the past week because 80 members opted to stay home and campaign. Mr. Young plans to bring the issue to the floor during the lame-duck session if he has enough votes to pass the measure, said a spokesman.
The contempt charges against Mrs. Stockton, Mr. Banta and Mr. Berman are for refusing to cooperate in the committee oversight hearings specifically, refusing to tell how POGO learned of the secret lawsuit. Mr. Speir agreed to cooperate and was not included in the contempt charge.
Mr. Tauzin said POGO used the secret information to "weasel" into the suit filed by whistleblower and former Arco Oil employee Benjamin Johnson Jr., who charged oil companies underpaid royalties to the federal government.
"There may have been some improprieties. It is being investigated," said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat. He said the bigger scandal is the underpayment of the royalties and said that should have been the focus of an investigation.
"The victims are the taxpayers who were defrauded of half a billion dollars or more by 15 oil companies," said Rep. George Miller, California Democrat.
Mr. Johnson filed the original suit Feb. 16, 1996, in U.S. District Court in Lufkin, Texas. POGO filed its suit in the same court June 9, 1997, which was combined with Mr. Johnson's claim.
"As a government watchdog group, POGO takes congressional oversight seriously and has fully complied with the committee's investigation," the group said in a written statement.
Members of the group said they were harassed by the committee in the form of repeated subpoenas to their workplace and by "forcing POGO board and staff to testify at a hearing that lasted until 10:30 p.m. at night."
Contempt of Congress is the refusal to comply with a congressional subpoena for testimony or documents, and is a federal misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail or a $100,000 fine.
The last time the House voted on contempt-of-Congress charges was in 1986. Brothers Ralph and Joseph Bernstein, who owned a New York land company, refused to cooperate with a House investigation into U.S. real estate owned by former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.

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