High Ethical Standards Will Rule Interior Department, Salazar Vows

WASHINGTON, DC, January 23, 2009 (ENS) – The Obama administration’s new Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, has promised that high ethical standards will be the norm at the department that has been plagued with scandals under the Bush administration.

In an address to thousands of Interior Department employees Thursday broadcast live by satellite to DOI offices across the country from the department’s main building in Washington, Salazar pledged to run the agency with honesty and respect for science.

“We and those who work with this department will make sure we follow the high ethical standards that President [Barack] Obama outlined in his first press conference yesterday at the White House,” said Salazar, who, before being elected to the U.S. Senate from Colorado, was that state’s attorney general, the top law enforcement officer.

He introduced his Chief of Staff Tom Strickland, who served during that same time period as United States Attorney for Colorado.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar addresses employees. January 22, 2009 (Photo courtesy DOI)

“We will follow the law, we will hold people accountable, and we will expect to be held accountable,” Salazar said. “We will not tolerate the types of lapses that detract and distract from good honest service to the American people that this department does every day.”

The Department of the Interior includes eight bureaus that manage millions of acres of public lands: The Bureau of Indian Affairs,The Bureau of Reclamation, the Minerals Management Service, the National Park Service, the Office of Surface Mining, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

During the Bush administration DOI officials were found to have violated ethics rules, undermining public confidence in the department.

In September 2008, Minerals Management Service employees were fired when the agency’s Inspector General found that they accepted gifts from oil and gas companies, participated in “a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity” and considered themselves exempt from federal ethics rules.

In May 2007, a deputy assistant secretary of fish, wildlife and parks, who controlled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species program, resigned in disgrace after the Inspector General found that she violated federal ethics rules by sending “nonpublic information” to industry lobbyists. Many of her decisions hampered endangered species protections and some are still the subject of litigation.

Salazar Thursday told the packed auditorium of DOI employees that a new day has dawned for the agency.

“I pledge to you that we will ensure the Interior Department’s decisions are based on sound science and the public interest, and not on the special interests. I want the public to be proud of the department’s work,” he said. “Above all, I want you to know that your secretary is proud of you and respects the work you do to serve the American people.”

In response to questions from employees in the audience, Salazar promised to fill management positions in the agency that have been left vacant under the Bush administration.

He vowed to coordinate closely with the departments of energy and commerce on energy issues, which are many, including oil and gas leasing, offshore drilling, and development of renewable sources of energy.

Secretary Salazar said that the DOI will be an important contributor to the Obama administration’s “moonshot on energy” and in carrying out a “strong economic recovery plan that helps create jobs, build our clean energy economy and remake America.”

On the controversial DOI regulation passed late last year that allows members of the public to carry concealed and loaded firearms in national parks, Salazar told a National Park Service employee concerned about assaults on park rangers that he would “take a look at it.”

From the audience, Einar Olson from the National Park Service said the national parks get 275 million visitors a year and park rangers and officers are already the most assaulted of all law enforcement officers.

Salazar responded that he has used a gun since he was a child and feels a sense of comfort when he has a gun with him. “I’m a defender of the 2nd Amendment,” he said, noting that the regulation is a subject of litigation. “We’ll take a look at it. I don’t have an answer for you at this time,” he said.

That was the new secretary’s response to many questions from the audience, but he did express a positive leaning towards the Endangered Species Act, which has been criticized by Republican lawmakers during the past several sessions of Congress.

“The ESA has worked,” said Salazar, “we have many examples.”

“I want my children and grandchildren to be able to see whooping cranes,” said the new secretary. “In my view, it’s like other laws. There may be ways in which we can do it better to protect the habitat under the ESA to help the species thrive.”

The secretary reminded employees that the department has “a global footprint and indeed very much a footprint in each of our 50 states and each of our territories and insular possessions.”

“The department and its agencies touch all of the people of America,” he said. “So whether your job … involves protecting wildlife or issuing leases, preserving history or providing water, I urge you to think of your mission as part of a mission of a new Department of America, this Department of the Interior.”

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