- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 17, 2010

Steve Henke, then a director of one of the largest field offices for the federal Bureau of Land Management, was applying for a job last year heading an oil and gas trade group when he sent a writing sample to his prospective employer from his government computer.

Mr. Henke wrote 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.”

The contents of that e-mail, recently obtained by a watchdog group through the Freedom of Information Act, are raising concerns about the decision by government ethics officials to allow Mr. Henke to leave his job as an oil and gas regulator to become director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.

Citing Mr. Henke’s “stroll through the revolving door,” the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight (POGO) said the government’s decision not to mandate any post-employment ethics restrictions also raised broader concerns about ethics enforcement in the government agency.

Mr. Henke’s actions, and BLM’s subsequent inaction, are of particular concern because BLM handles onshore oil and gas leasing,” Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director, wrote in a recent letter to BLM Director Bob Abbey and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

“We need not remind you that the Deepwater Horizon disaster exposed how years of excessive coziness between the petroleum industry and the now-defunct Minerals Management Service (MMS), which handled offshore oil and gas leasing, was a significant contributing factor in the Gulf spill,” she said.

In a brief telephone interview, Mr. Henke said he sought advice from ethics officials when taking the job and he said 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.”

In response to questions from The Washington Times about the e-mails obtained by POGO, BLM spokesman David Quick said there were no plans to reopen or expand any investigations into the BLM field office in New Mexico where Mr. Henke worked.

Mr. Quick also provided a copy of a letter that Mr. Abbey, the BLM director, sent to the San Juan Citizens Alliance, another group that has expressed concerns about Mr. Henke’s switch from the BLM to an oil and gas trade group.

In addition, the environmental group and POGO say they remain troubled by an Interior Department inspector general’s investigation earlier this year that found Mr. Henke took lodging and meals from an oil and gas company while he worked for the government. The report was issued after Mr. Henke left the government, and the U.S. attorney’s office in New Mexico did not file any charges of wrongdoing against him after reviewing the findings.

In his letter to the alliance, Mr. Abbey acknowledged that the inspector general’s probe found “several questionable activities,” but also noted that federal prosecutors “evaluated the matter and declined to prosecute.”

“The BLM is committed to maintaining strict ethical standards for all of its employees,” Mr. Abbey wrote.

But POGO officials said government ethics officials appear to have given Mr. Henke the benefit of the doubt when deciding there wasn’t a conflict of interest. An ethics official based the decision after perusing the oil and gas group’s website, which said its purpose was “education and advocacy,” as well as information provided by Mr. Henke.

“While it may be common practice for ethics official to take an employee’s word on what their employer does — which is problematic in itself — the lack of a watchful search of [the association’s website] resulted in the ethics official overlooking documents indicating that [the association] works with BLM,” Ms. Brian wrote in her letter to Mr. Abbey and Mr. Salazar.

Ms. Brian said the situation highlighted a “clear conflict of interest, and one that doesn’t appear to have been thoroughly examined.”

Still, Mr. Henke has received some praise for his BLM work. In a letter to the editor to the Daily Times newspaper in New Mexico, Republican state Rep. Paul C. Bandy credited the former BLM official with increasing enforcement inspection staff and improving relations between the oil and gas industry and residents.

“That he could accomplish so much in increased regulation while retaining the respect and friendship of people in the industries regulated is a wonder,” Mr. Bandy wrote of Mr. Henke.

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