By Puneet Kollipara and Kevin Bogardus - 06/03/10 10:00 AM EDT
BP and others in the oil and gas industry have paid for dozens of trips and meals for officials at federal agencies deeply involved in Washington’s response to the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
A review by The Hill of gift reports on file at the Office of Government Ethics shows oil and gas companies picked up the tab for tours by federal officials of offshore oil rigs in the Gulf along with oil facilities in Alaska.
The bulk of the trips occurred under President George W. Bush’s administration. Only two industry-funded trips took place during the first nine months of President Barack Obama’s administration.
BP, the company at the center of what has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, picked up the highest tab for gifts to government officials among oil companies, according to the reports.
BP and its affiliates — BP America and BP Exploration — show up in the gift reports at least 16 different times, paying for meals as well as for oil and gas industry seminars and tours of oil facilities. The cost of the gifts totaled more than $7,200.
In June 2004, BP paid for meals and airfare for a trio of Interior Department officials, including then-Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, while they visited an offshore oil rig off New Orleans. BP split the cost with the National Ocean Industries Association.
Griles later pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for his involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and was sentenced to 10 months in prison.
In February 2005, then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton and then-Minerals Management Service (MMS) Director Johnnie Burton attended a dedication ceremony for BP’s Thunder Horse oil rig off the coast of Texas. BP paid for travel and meals for the officials.
BP also paid for airfare and lodging in 2006 and 2007 for a trip by officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, for “maintenance of video surveillance at polar bear den” and a “polar bear study,” according to documents.
In August 2004, six EPA officials attended a meeting on Alaska’s North Slope near Prudhoe Bay, where they stayed at BP facilities. In 2006, BP was responsible for a large oil spill in Prudhoe Bay.
Since the spill, Obama has taken a hard line against the federal agencies overseeing oil drilling in the Gulf. His administration has proposed splintering MMS into three different agencies. During a press conference last week, Obama said the agency “had been plagued by corruption for years.”
According to The Hill’s review, MMS officials received compensation from the oil and gas industry six times, mostly to attend industry conferences, at a cost of over $3,200.
MMS has been under heavy scrutiny since the Interior inspector general’s office issued a report last week that found many agency employees at its Lake Charles, La., district office had taken gifts from the oil and gas industry for several years up to 2007.
“Through numerous interviews, we found that a culture of accepting gifts from oil and gas companies was prevalent throughout the MMS Lake Charles office,” acting Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote in the report.
Some employees had also used illegal drugs and had pornographic images stored on their office computers, the report found.
Overall, the review of gift reports shows oil and gas companies, along with their respective trade associations, picked up the tab on 62 different occasions from 2004 to 2009 for Bush administration officials from EPA, Interior and Homeland Security. (That data includes a gap: The Office of Government Ethics could not provide gift reports for several smaller agencies within the Interior Department from April 2008 to September 2008.)
The amount of money spent on those trips and meals is more than $35,900, a paltry amount when compared to the political donations provided by the oil and gas industry to presidential candidates and lawmakers in both parties. Already for the 2010 election cycle, those in the oil and gas industry have given more than $12.7 million in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Still, watchdog groups say the trips and meals can contribute to a cozy relationship between industry representatives and the regulators meant to police them.
“As a regulator, if you’re getting some really nice exotic trips paid for in full by the petroleum industry, an industry you’re supposed to be regulating, I think that does present serious conflicts of interest because you’re creating personal financial incentives for employees to treat the company favorably, to continue receiving access to these kind of trips,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen.
Slocum said that the filings, which are compiled every six months and are available on request, “ought to be reported in a more timely basis and be made proactively available ... online” to allow for full transparency.
It is unclear exactly why so few industry-funded trips show up during Obama's term, though administration officials credit an executive order on ethics the president signed in January 2009, which implemented more stringent enforcement of existing ethics rules.
“We have heard a lot from people who are barred by our new ethics enforcement policy from attending these events,” said a senior White House official who requested anonymity.
“Due to the administration’s strictest ethics policy ever, these activities have not occurred under Secretary [Ken] Salazar’s leadership,” said Kendra Barkoff, an Interior Department spokeswoman.
“Under the Obama administration and the leadership of Administrator [Lisa] Jackson, EPA employees are held to a high standard of accountability, transparency and ethical standards,” EPA said in a statement.
But ethics experts said Obama’s new ethics policy does not specifically prevent administration employees from accepting reimbursements from companies for trips.
“This executive order does essentially nothing in connection to travel,” said Tara Malloy, associate counsel for the Campaign Legal Center. “The executive order requires every appointee in this administration to take a pledge not to accept gifts and abide by various revolving-door restrictions.”
The White House official said there will be “occasions” where a trip will be allowed because there is a strong official purpose and it is in the public interest.
“The government should be able to communicate to all Americans,” the official said. “But there should be much, much less of that, and there is much, much less of it because of our new rules as well as the tougher enforcement of the existing rules.”