MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris. The secretary of the interior is assuring Congress he's cleaning up the department. That's after a scandal broke involving sex, drugs, and graft. An internal investigation found that government regulators had a more than cozy relationship with oil companies. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports on today's congressional hearing.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Interior secretary Dirk Kempthorne outlined his plans for better ethics oversight at a house committee on natural resources hearing.

Mr. DIRK KEMPTHORNE (Interior Secretary): I can assure the committee that this process will be completed as swiftly as possible, and we'll exam the full spectrum of disciplinary actions including termination.

ELLIOTT: The problem was in the minerals management service, the agency that oversees oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters. And in particular, employees who determine whether energy companies are paying their proper royalties on what they drill. Today's hearing comes just after the house voted to expand offshore drilling. West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall chairs the Natural Resources Committee.

Representative NICK RAHALL (Democrat, West Virginia): As we all know, these are serious issues, but they are more serious now as we face a certain prospect that vast areas of federal waters will become open to oil and gas leasing in the very near future.

ELLIOTT: Republican Steve Pearce of New Mexico was quick to point out that the workers involved were not political appointees.

Representative STEVE PEARCE (Republican, New Mexico): I expect that no one here today will attempt to defend these career employees, many of who served from the Carter and Clinton administrations, 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.

ELLIOTT: Interior department inspector general Earl Devaney testified that investigators uncovered what he called a pervasive culture of exclusivity.

Mr. EARL DEVANEY (Inspector General, Interior Department): Simply stated, the MMS employees named in these reports had a callous disregard for the ethical rules by which the rest of us are required to play.

ELLIOTT: His office found that the government workers were rigging bids, taking lavish gifts, and engaging in sex and drugs with oil company employees. But he said the behavior appeared to be isolated.

Mr. DEVANEY: This particular group, because of the nature of their work, felt like they had to party and have drinks and socialize with the industry to collect market intelligence and, obviously, our investigators didn't buy that. And ultimately, this attitude led to a permissiveness within that program. I don't think that that kind of thinking exists in the rest of the Department of Interior.

ELLIOTT: 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 Secretary Kempthorne if the department could suspend companies from bidding for oil leases if they don't cooperate in such investigations. Kempthorne didn't know.

Mr. KEMPTHORNE: I do not have an answer to that.

Representative PETER DEFAZIO (Democrat, Oregon): If you don't have that authority, would you like Congress to make it available? Don't you think it will be a useful tool, you know, I mean having a club might be a little more effective than you know, gee, we'll be worried that the people were partying with here going to be put in a tough situation if they accept this drug, sex or money from us.

ELLIOTT: 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.

Mr. KEMPTHORNE: There is a public trust and we need to hold that sacred.

ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, The Capital.

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