To overhaul federal oversight of offshore drilling, President Obama has turned to a Washington lawyer with a reputation for fixing broken government agencies, but little or no background with energy or environmental issues.
Michael R. Bromwich, a former federal prosecutor and inspector general for the Justice Department who is now a partner in the Washington office of a New York law firm, will head up efforts to restructure the former Minerals Management Service, Obama announced yesterday.
"His charge over the next few months is to build an organization that acts as the oil industry's watchdog -- not its partner," Obama said during his Oval Office address last night.
Obama did not announce what Bromwich's title will be. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has dissolved MMS, separated it into three parts and forced the resignation of the MMS director he had appointed, Liz Birnbaum. But Obama said in his speech that "the pace of reform was just too slow."
The MMS job did not require Senate confirmation, and Bromwich's would not involve confirmation unless Congress acts to change the status of the agencies Salazar has created.
Bromwich helped prosecute Oliver North in the Iran-Contra investigation in the late 1980s. After that, he was inspector general for DOJ during the Clinton administration. He then went into private practice at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. But his most high-profile work at the firm has been leading turnaround efforts at troubled agencies like the Houston and Washington, D.C., police departments.
The Harvard-trained lawyer's sparkling resume has a notable gap -- almost no energy experience. A document distributed by Interior says Bromwich "conducted many major internal investigations for companies ... in the energy, pharmaceuticals, public accounting, and private security industries, among others," but does not detail the energy work.
Bromwich did not return phone messages left last night. But the Obama administration might see his lack of energy background as an asset in taking over a bureaucracy repeatedly described as having a "cozy relationship" with the oil and gas industry. A 2008 Interior inspector general report detailing sexual relationships between MMS staffers and oil company employees has prompted many critics to chide that the agency was literally "in bed" with industry.
Such reports have buffeted the agency in recent years, and new reports released since the Deepwater Horizon exploded, sank and unleashed a torrent of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, have detailed an agency that at times viewed itself as a part of the oil industry rather than a monitor of it.
But Bromwich's scarce experience in the field does raise eyebrows with some Interior veterans.
"It is interesting that the president would select someone who does not appear to have any natural resource or energy experience to both reform and lead this organization during a time of challenge," said David Bernhardt, solicitor at the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration and now a lawyer in the Washington office of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. "However, he will actually find many talented and dedicated public servants within Interior who will want to help him succeed, and who are radically different from the way they are described in the talking points of politicians."
Industry supporters might take heart that Bromwich does not appear to be any more closely tied to the environmental community than he is to industry.
"I don't know him personally. I have not even heard of him," said Bill Snape, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Bromwich looks solid, though he does come out of a corporate law culture himself."
MMS, created by a secretarial order of then-Interior Secretary James Watt, has been hit for years with accusations that it is too close to industry. Until the BP spill, most of those accusations and scandals focused on whether the agency drove a hard enough bargain with oil companies on royalties owed to the taxpayers.
"Over the last decade," Obama said, implicitly pointing a finger at the administration of President George W. Bush, "this agency has become emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility -- a philosophy that says corporations should be allowed to play by their own rules and police themselves.
"At this agency, industry insiders were put in charge of industry oversight. Oil companies showered regulators with gifts and favors and were essentially allowed to conduct their own safety inspections and write their own regulations," Obama said.
Without praising or criticizing Salazar, Obama noted that Salazar quickly announced changes at MMS when he took office. "But it's now clear that the problem there ran much deeper, and the pace of reform was just too slow," Obama said. "And so Secretary Salazar and I are bringing in new leadership at the agency."
Bob Abbey, who has run MMS since May 28, will return to his post as director of the Bureau of Land Management, according to Interior.
Bromwich is not a complete stranger to politics. He "maxed out" on political contributions to President Obama's 2008 campaign, giving $4,600, the limit under the law. He gave $2,000 in 2004 to then-Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
He also gave a boost last month to a controversial Obama administration appointee, James Cole, who is under scrutiny for his work for AIG and some of his legal views. Bromwich had defended a federal judge who Cole prosecuted when he worked at the Justice Department. Bromwich told the Associated Press that Cole did "a very professional job in sensitive circumstances."
Bromwich is media savvy, having done numerous television interviews to explain high-profile cases he handled as inspector general and opine on legal issues. In December 2009, Washingtonian magazine listed him as one of "Washington's top lawyers" alongside "elite criminal defenders" like Stan Brand and Richard Ben-Veniste. Bromwich, a northwest D.C. resident, has practiced law for 29 years, according to Martindale.com, which says he has the legal service's top "peer reviewed" rating.
Bromwich currently heads the internal investigations, compliance and monitoring practice group at Fried Frank. According to his resume, his practice has been concentrated on conducting internal investigations for private companies and other organizations; providing monitoring and oversight services in connection with public and private litigation and government enforcement actions; and representing institutions and individuals in white-collar criminal and regulatory matters.
From 2002 to 2008, Bromwich served as the independent monitor for the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department, focusing on use of force, civil rights integrity, internal misconduct and training issues. In 2007, Bromwich undertook a large-scale investigation of the Houston Police Department's crime lab.
Obama called Bromwich "a tough federal prosecutor and inspector general." As inspector general, Bromwich was best known for investigating allegations of misconduct, defective procedures and incompetence at the FBI crime lab; the bureau's handling of the Aldrich Ames spy case; and the Justice Department's role in the CIA crack cocaine controversy.
In the Iran-Contra case, Bromwich served from 1987 through 1989 as associate counsel in the Office of Independent Counsel for Iran-Contra. In 1989, he was one of three prosecutors presenting the case against former Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North. He was an assistant U.S. attorney in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York 1983 to 1987. Bromwich was inspector general at DOJ the same time that Wilma Lewis, assistant secretary for land and water, served as inspector general at Interior. Though her portfolio includes MMS, Lewis has kept a low profile during the spill crisis.
Bromwich's selection earned high marks from a lawmaker who also once served as a federal prosecutor, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
"As the Justice Department's Inspector General under President Clinton, I knew Mr. Bromwich as a disciplined public servant and able lawyer who took his oversight responsibilities seriously," Whitehouse said in a statement. "These traits are essential as we continue to investigate the systemic shortcomings at MMS and work to ensure that the disaster in the Gulf is never repeated."
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