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Ex-Interior Secretary Says US ‘Wasted Millions’ In Probe

By Siobhan Hughes  Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES: DECEMBER 12, 2010, 7:56 P.M. ET

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–Former U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton lashed out days after an inspector general’s report found “no conclusive evidence” that she had broken federal conflict-of-interest laws when she accepted a job at Royal Dutch Shell Plc (RDSA) after leaving her post in the Bush administration.

“The Interior inspector general’s office wasted millions of taxpayer dollars in an attempt to find imagined wrongdoing,” Norton said in a statement circulated on Sunday. She said that she was unemployed for nine months after leaving the Interior Department and had interviewed for “a number of different positions” before joining Shell. Norton no longer works for Shell and did not say where or whether she is currently employed.

The U.S. Justice Department had investigated whether Norton broke the law by talking to Shell about a job when she was still in office and overseeing the nation’s oil and natural-gas deposits, people familiar with the matter had said. The Justice Department declined criminal prosecution, Interior’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, said in a report on Friday.

During Norton’s tenure, the U.S. Interior Department “appeared to give preferential treatment” to Shell when the company was pursuing leases for shale exploration on tracts of government-owned land in the western United States, the report found. The treatment helped Shell obtain three of six leases and “disadvantaged” other companies, all of whom were told by employees of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that they could only submit one bid, the report said.

Norton attended meetings or was briefed on oil shale in 12 instances in 2005 and 2006, the report found. In one instance, two weeks after a briefing with Norton, a BLM senior advisor circulated a draft notice soliciting applications for shale leases and told employees to respond quickly as “the secretary wants this out as quickly as possible,” the report found.

The U.S. Office of Government Ethics ultimately concluded that Norton had “played a significant role” in the oil-shale program while secretary and said that her “participation in the program should subject her to the lifetime ban on communicating with the federal government regarding the program,” the report said.

Norton did not respond to the issue of lifetime ban. She said in the statement that “I was enthusiastic enough about the possibility of advancing America’s energy security to spend three years working on Shell’s oil shale research effort.” She said that “I hope the Obama administration will stop creating obstacles to this important part of America’s energy future.”

Norton also did not respond to report findings that, on two separate occasions after she had left the Interior Department, Norton “failed to fully describe her role in the leasing program to DOI ethics officials.” One Interior ethics official wrote Norton in an e-mail that “the permanent ban might not apply based on your description of how you were involved in this issue while Secretary,” according to the report. The ethics official also asked Norton follow-up questions, but Norton “never responded,” the report said.

-By Siobhan Hughes; Dow Jones Newswires;; (202) 862-6654

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