Top oil-rig regulator plans "SWAT team" to root out agency's corruption


The Denver Post
Posted: 06/24/2010 01:00:00 AM MDT


WASHINGTON — Three days into his new job, the man President Barack Obama chose to clean up the Minerals Management Service announced Wednesday that he would create an investigative "SWAT team" to scour the agency and root out corruption and conflict of interest.

Michael Bromwich said he's using a model he developed as inspector general at the Justice Department in the 1990s, creating a team of lawyers and investigators reporting directly to him and who can quickly follow up leads or anonymous tips from within the imploded agency.

Bromwich — who will direct the agency's former regulatory functions under the newly christened Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — described the team as potentially the most powerful tool to change an agency culture that lawmakers from both major parties blasted Wednesday, with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine calling it "rife with cronyism and corruption."

"There will be zero tolerance for corruption (and) coziness," Bromwich told senators on an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the Interior Department budget.

"We will work aggressively both through the (inspector general's) office and through the new internal unit that I'm setting up to root out the vestiges of what shouldn't have been there to begin with," he said.

The Obama administration is facing criticism over its regulation of offshore drilling leading up to the April 20 accident on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, and Brom wich is quickly becoming a symbol of the administration's determination to clean house. A hard-nosed investigator, he has a resume that includes a stint as a government lawyer investigating the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s and an independent monitor for the District of Columbia's Metropolitan Police Department.

Wednesday's hearing was focused on the administration's plan for reorganizing the MMS, an agency within the Department of the Interior and the primary regulator of oil and gas drilling off America's coasts.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the number of inspectors will be increased sharply from the current number of 62. About 380 employees of the former MMS have been transferred to the new agency Brom wich now heads, Salazar said, but he will ask Congress for funding for 220 more — many of them inspectors.

Before the breakup, the MMS not only regulated offshore drilling, it was also in charge of developing offshore leases and collecting royalties for all the government's leasing programs, both on land and offshore. To critics, that made the agency both the oil industry's cheerleader and its watchdog.

The MMS will now be broken up into three different agencies corresponding to those duties. Salazar told lawmakers Wednesday that the plan was based on the experience of Great Britain and Norway, two countries with robust offshore programs that were also reorganized after disasters.

"There is a problem. We have to fix it, and we have to learn the lessons from it," Salazar said. "There was a sense of great safety and complacency that needs to be re-examined, and that is exactly what we are doing now."

Salazar repeatedly described Bromwich as his choice for the most delicate job of the reorganization, heading the agency that will be responsible for inspecting rigs and enforcing regulations in an agency with a track record of doing both poorly.

But Bromwich told lawmakers that he had been called by Obama and that it was the president who persuaded him to leave a lucrative job in a private law firm to lead the reorganization. A month ago, Salazar tapped two close associates to manage the agency's breakup, Chris Henderson, a Denver investment banker, and Rhea Suh, an aide to former Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said Suh and Henderson are still involved and will coordinate with Brom wich.

"They are working in conjunction," Barkoff said. Suh and Henderson have "been working on it all along" and will "continue to do so."


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