- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

JUSTICE

Former Bush official targeted in probe

The Justice Department has launched an investigation into whether former Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton illegally used her position to steer lucrative oil leases to Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the company she works for now, officials with both departments confirmed to the Associated Press.

The criminal investigation is focused on a 2006 decision by the Interior Department to award three oil shale leases on federal land in Colorado to a Shell subsidiary. Oil from the leases could eventually earn the company hundreds of billions dollars.

Investigators are looking into whether Mrs. Norton, named by President George W. Bush to run the agency in 2001, violated a law that bars federal employees from discussing employment with a company if they are involved in a decision that could benefit that company. Months after granting Shell the leases, Mrs. Norton left the agency. Shell later that year hired her as an in-house counsel for its unconventional fuels division, which includes oil shale.



Investigators at the Justice and Interior departments also are trying to determine whether Mrs. Norton violated a broader federal “denial of honest services” law. Under the statute, government officials can be prosecuted for violating the public trust by directing government business to favored firms.

Officials spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.

Mrs. Norton could not be reached immediately for comment.

VETERANS AFFAIRS

VA facilities are improving, IG says

Inspections show that Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities have made significant progress on fixing endoscopic procedure problems that potentially exposed thousands to HIV and other infections.

The VA’s inspector general said in a report released Friday that it did surprise visits to 128 medical facilities and that all were compliant in following procedures. It also said all but one showed it properly trained their staffs for using the devices.

The findings were a significant improvement over inspections earlier this summer at several facilities that found less than half in compliance.

About 10,000 veterans from veterans hospitals in Augusta, Ga.; Miami; and Murfreesboro, Tenn.; were told earlier this year that they may have been exposed to infections during colonoscopies or other endoscopic procedures where equipment had been improperly cleaned.

More than 50 subsequently tested positive for infections - including at least eight who tested positive for HIV. The VA has said there’s no way to tell where those infections came from, but it is offering free medical treatment to all those affected.

Gerald M. Cross, the agency’s acting under secretary for health, said in a statement that the IG’s findings show that the VA quality assurance programs “identified a risk and successfully corrected that risk on a national scale.”

CONGRESS

Lawmakers push for arson registry

The deadly fire at Angeles National Forest is renewing a push from California lawmakers for a national registry of convicted arsonists.

Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, introduced legislation Thursday that would establish the registry. It complements a similar bill backed by Reps. Mary Bono Mack, a Republican, and Adam Schiff, a Democrat, that has been in a House Judiciary subcommittee since March.

Currently, only three states maintain a database of convicted arsonists: California, Illinois and Montana. Investigators acknowledged that a nationwide registry would help them solve only a small percentage of arsons, but many still consider the investment worthwhile, particularly for keeping tabs on serial arsonists.

“It’s not going to solve every arson-related thing. It’s not meant to do that,” said William Soqui, chief of the fire department in Cathedral City, Calif., about 110 miles east of Los Angeles. “It’s meant to give investigators another tool, to help them narrow down the list of suspects and to keep track of these people who have been convicted of a crime.”

The fire near Los Angeles began Aug. 26 and is still burning. It destroyed 89 houses and killed two firefighters, who died when their truck plunged down a ravine as they fled the flames. Investigators say the cause of the fire was arson.

“Sadly, this isn’t the first time an arsonist has set a wildfire in California that took innocent lives and destroyed vast amounts of wilderness and property,” Mrs. Feinstein said in a statement. “This is simply unacceptable. We need to give law enforcement the tools it needs to keep track of criminal arsonists.”

An arson fire in October 2006 that killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters led Mrs. Mack and Mr. Schiff to push for a national registry. The bill passed the House in December 2007 but stalled in the Senate.

c From wire dispatches and staff reports

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