Following an internal investigation that found government regulators were rigging bids, taking lavish gifts and engaging in sex and drug use with oil company employees, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne outlined his plans for better ethics oversight at a congressional hearing Thursday.
"I can assure the committee that this process will be completed as swiftly as possible," Kempthorne told the House Natural Resources Committee, "and we will examine the full spectrum of disciplinary actions, including termination."
The controversy surrounds the Minerals Management Service, an agency that oversees oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters. In particular, the report focused on employees in Denver who determine whether energy companies are paying the proper royalties on what they drill.
Thursday's hearing comes just after the House voted to expand offshore drilling.
"As we all know, these are serious issues," said committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV), "but they are even more serious now as we face certain prospect that vast areas of federal waters will become open to oil and gas leasing in the very near future."
Republican Steve Pearce of New Mexico was quick to point out that the employees involved were not political appointees.
"I expect that no one here today will attempt to defend these career employees, many of whom have served since the Carter and Clinton administrations," he said. "There is no defense for their actions. The juicy details of their salacious behavior are more appropriate for pages of People magazine than the Congressional Record or the front pages of The Washington Post."
Interior Department Inspector General Earl Devaney testified that investigators uncovered what he called "a pervasive culture of exclusivity."
"Simply stated, the MMS employees named in these latest reports had a callous disregard for the rules by which the rest of us are required to play," he said.
But he said the behavior appeared to be isolated.
"This particular group, because of the nature of their work, felt like they needed to party and have drinks and socialize with the industry to collect market intelligence," he said. "Obviously, our investigators didn't buy that. This attitude led to a permissiveness within that program. I don't think that kind of thinking exists in the rest of the Department of the Interior."
Devaney said he had no evidence that oil companies benefited, but he acknowledged that not all of the companies cooperated with his probe.
Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio asked Kempthorne if the department could suspend companies from bidding on oil leases if they don't cooperate in such investigations, but the Interior secretary said he didn't know.
"If you don't have that authority, would you like Congress to make it available?" DeFazio followed up. "Don't you think it would be a useful tool? You know, having a club might be a little more effective than, 'Gee, we'll be worried that people we're partying with might be put in a tough situation if they accept these drugs, sex or money from us.' "
Kempthorne said the department was planning an outreach program to educate energy companies about its ethics policies. It's part of what he describes as the new "culture of conscience" at the Interior Department.
"Because there is a public trust, and you need to hold that sacred," he said.