INTERIOR:

IG, Republicans clash over drilling report

Mary Kendall acknowledged yesterday that she wants to become the permanent inspector general for the Interior Department, after spending more than three years as the agency's interim watchdog.

But the road there promises to be fraught with difficulty, if yesterday's hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee was any indication. Republicans have waged an all-out attack on Kendall, alleging that her impartiality has been compromised by her involvement in what they characterize as "policy-related" roles (Greenwire, Aug. 2).

Most of yesterday's hearing focused on Kendall's presence at meetings on the drafting of a 2010 report that erroneously stated a panel of scientists supported instituting a moratorium on deepwater drilling after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) contends that Kendall's involvement in those meetings tainted her office's later investigation into whether Interior officials had doctored the report. That investigation found no conclusive evidence of intentional wrongdoing.

"When you are participating in meetings or conference calls and receiving draft documents on the very same issues that your office may be asked to investigate -- and of course, then did investigate -- it's clear your primary function was compromised," Hastings said. "That you do not see this participating as an apparent conflict of interest or something that raised questions about your independence -- it's that action that troubles me the most."

In her testimony yesterday, Kendall made the distinction between the full 2010 report and the executive summary that her office investigated. At one point, she said she was "embarrassed" to say she actually had not read the full report and emphasized that she participated only as a listener in informational meetings on the report to prepare for her role on the Outer Continental Shelf Safety Board.

Yesterday's hearing -- which spanned about three hours, excluding a break for floor votes -- was at times a free-for-all where Republicans aired complaints about Interior and Democrats accused the majority of ignoring drilling safety.

But Republicans also sharply questioned Kendall on her impartiality, engaging her in tense dialogue. Projecting emails and documents on a screen, they accused her of working side by side with political appointees and neglecting her oversight duties.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), for example, interrogated Kendall on why investigators did not accept emails concerning the 2010 report that were offered by Steve Black, counselor to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. In fact, they did accept them, according to Kendall.

But Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) contended that those emails may not have been complete -- and asked Kendall if her office had reviewed internal emails from the White House, as well.

Kendall pointed out her office's jurisdiction "does not extend to the White House."

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), meanwhile, blasted Kendall repeatedly for not knowing about accusations from a former scientific integrity officer at Interior, who has claimed he was fired for raising concerns about how the agency had represented the science behind its proposal to remove four dams in the Klamath River Basin.

"This is absolutely stunning," he said. "You seem oblivious to it. I find that remarkable."

Democrats repeatedly came to Kendall's aid, criticizing Republicans for what Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called a "McCarthyesque set of questions."

"They keep saying the same things over and over again," the panel's top Democrat said. "You keep giving them the answers. They hate answers."

But Hastings did indicate at the end of the hearing that there may be light at the end of the tunnel for Kendall, telling her he was "very much appreciative" of her presence.

"I'm not sure we've gotten all the answers," he said, but added: "Those of us probably at some time in our political lives have faced similar situations, so there is some empathy."

Yesterday's hearing was part of the panel's probe into whether Interior officials doctored the 2010 report to buttress Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's drilling moratorium in the wake of the BP PLC oil spill.

Earlier this week, the committee voted to authorize new subpoenas for a handful of Interior officials, compelling them to appear at a hearing he has tentatively scheduled for September (Greenwire, Aug. 1).

Hastings has said subpoena authority is necessary after Interior refused to confirm that five mid-level officials involved in the May 2010 report would appear at a hearing last week. But yesterday, he confirmed that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had offered to testify.

Hastings said he told Salazar that if he wanted to come before the committee, he would have to be willing to testify on a variety of issues, including drilling and surface mining. The correspondence ended there, he said.

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