When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a new code of ethics in the department in a 2009 press conference, he proclaimed, “There’s a new sheriff in town,” specifically naming the Interior’s relationship with the oil and gas business as his chief target.
It was clear why. A series of rotten business dealings between Interior officials and industry members have emerged over the past several years.
Lax oversight of the royalty-in-kind program has reportedly shorted taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in federal minerals royalties. A scandal of lurid behavior between industry members and employees at the former Minerals Management Service’s Lakewood, Colo., office shined a spotlight on Interior in 2008, and some critics argue that lax oversight by the same agency may have contributed to the BP Gulf oil spill disaster.
Now, the Project On Government Oversight is pressuring Interior to apply Salazar’s higher ethical standard to a long-standing allegation of preferential treatment and retaliatory actions at the Bureau of Land Management’s Casper field office.
“Unless the department holds employees accountable for violating the public trust, it cannot cultivate a culture that deters misconduct,” POGO’s executive director Danielle Brian wrote in a March 2 letter to Salazar and BLM director Bob Abbey.
According to federal investigative documents, former BLM Casper field office manager James Murkin admitted, “I goofed,” and “Not my finest hour, I screwed this one up.”
Murkin allegedly failed to report his close friendship with the owner of McMurry Ready-Mix, whose name was redacted from the federal reports. POGO and the Casper Star-Tribune identified the businessman as William N. “Neil” McMurry. McMurry, now in his 80s, is well-known throughout the Rockies for his success in construction as well as the oil and gas industry. He and his son, Mick McMurry, played key roles in unlocking one of the biggest onshore gas fields, the Jonah field in western Wyoming. The McMurry family amassed great wealth in Wyoming and has been one of Wyoming’s biggest philanthropists through the McMurry Foundation.
Over a period of several years, McMurry allegedly treated Murkin to many dinners, according to the report. Murkin failed to prepay for $916.55 worth of materials from McMurry Ready-Mix — a violation of BLM ethics rules. Murkin also failed to detail the extent of his relationship and dealings with McMurry on required financial disclosure forms.
Murkin was also accused of ignoring an unsubstantiated charge that McMurry Ready-Mix frequently trespassed onto public property to remove an estimated $388,000 worth of sand and gravel for a housing development project north of Casper. Murkin was also accused of skirting BLM protocol while he advocated a proposed BLM land swap with McMurry.
The allegations were made by at least one former BLM Casper field office employee who insisted that the friendship between Murkin and McMurry resulted in preferential treatment.
It remains unclear whether McMurry actually benefited from his close relationship with Murkin. The Eagle Creek Land Exchange, which would have transferred 30 acres of McMurry’s private, river-access property for 2,000 acres of BLM property, was eventually dropped.
Despite what appears to be an admission of wrongdoing by Murkin in the 2009 Interior Inspector General report, he never faced formal reprimand from the Interior, according to POGO, and the Wyoming U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to act on the report. In other words, Murkin had done nothing requiring corrective action in the eyes of the Interior or the law. In fact, Murkin was eventually promoted to deputy director of BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System and Community Partnerships.
BLM officials say Murkin is no longer a federal employee. However, POGO insists Interior can, and must, revisit the case in order to resolve what was apparently a distressing situation among employees within the BLM Casper field office for many years.
“We believe that there are still problems there and that Interior should ensure that there is ethical conduct and that there aren’t other improper relationships, friendships or other employment that compromises the public interest,” POGO investigator Mandy Smithberger told WyoFile.
Given the serious nature of the Interior’s own findings in the case, and Salazar’s still-fresh promise of higher ethical standards, it seems reasonable for Interior to explain in more detail what action it has taken (or will take) to ensure such behavior doesn’t continue at the BLM Casper field office.
But don’t expect apologies from McMurry for allegedly wining-and-dining the federal employee who oversaw several aspects of his concrete and gravel business. Wyoming is essentially a small town where the lines between friendship and government oversight are sometimes as fuzzy as a grizzly’s tail. And even when the hobnobbery does stink to high-heaven, it is still revered by some for the sport of it. It’s important to note that businessmen such as McMurry are under no obligation — short of actual bribery — to abstain from wining-and-dining or otherwise trying to curry favor from public servants.
As for any federal employee who would reward such flattery, however, there is no admiration.
Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or [email protected]