WASHINGTON – Congressional Republicans clashed Thursday with the internal watchdog for the Interior Department over GOP allegations that the White House manipulated data to justify the 2010 Gulf of Mexico drilling moratorium after the BP oil disaster.
The fight continued during the second day of House Natural Resources committee hearings aimed at getting to the bottom of an error in the draft report used to justify the drilling moratorium that they contend cost thousands of jobs.
The acting inspector general for the Interior Department, Mary Kendall, was grilled for nearly three hours on her actions, integrity and character against suggestions that she was biased when she ruled there was no evidence to suggest the report’s error was anything but inadvertent.
Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., questioned whether Kendall was too close to the situation by sitting in meetings regarding the oil disaster prior to investigating the same people. Hastings and other Republicans — including two Louisiana congressmen, Reps. Jeff Landry, R-New Iberia, and John Fleming, R-Minden — also suggested Kendall could be influenced by her admitted desire to become the permanent inspector general and remove the “acting” part of her title.
“This does not strike me as the type of independent role that IGs are expected to serve,” Hastings said.
“Your testimony … has impeached your character,” Landry told her.
Kendall repeatedly denied any conflict of interest or bias. “The past (several) weeks have been the most painful and difficult of my entire career,” she said, arguing against the “unfair attacks.”
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and other Democrats called the hearings political ploys, designed solely to try to make President Barack Obama look bad.
The same committee refuses to question the leadership of the corporations — BP, Halliburton and Transocean — that caused the Gulf oil disaster and the moratorium. “Instead, we are here to investigate the investigation of a two-year-old, copy-and-paste mistake,” Markey said.
The “mistake” was when the initial draft of the report stated that scientific peer reviewers supported a six-month drilling moratorium. But, in reality, they had not reviewed such a time length. A majority of the scientific peer reviewers did support a temporary “pause” in drilling.
The error was corrected, and Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar, who did recommend the moratorium, apologized to the reviewers.
The moratorium was recommended in the wake of the BP tragedy that killed 11 men and resulted in a three-month discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil into Gulf waters and along Louisiana’s coast.
Reps. Fleming, of Minden, and Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, both said the damage caused by the moratorium through lost jobs was worse than the damage caused by the oil.
“The real damage has been done by the (Obama) administration in keeping people from maintaining, keeping and acquiring good jobs,” Fleming said.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., called it “astounding” that they would call the moratorium worse than the biggest man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history, especially when 11 people were killed.
Markey said the systemic flaws within the oil industry at the time cost people jobs, not the Obama administration.
“The oil industry recklessly and indifferently came very close to ruining the livelihoods of the people along the Gulf of Mexico,” Markey said.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the whole debate is about a typo between the word “pause” and “moratorium,” which he called ridiculous because a pause is open-ended and could easily equate to several months.
“I am a bit puzzled at the demeanor of some of the (House) members who act as if a crime has been committed (by Kendall),” DeFazio said.
Republicans also seized on email exchanges from one federal case agent who stated he believed the error was made intentionally by the White House, but he could not prove it.
Kendall said she was surprised by the agent’s opinion. “That was the case agent’s opinion. The evidence did not support that opinion,” she said.
In the upper chamber, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., has pushed for Kendall to be investigated for alleged bias as well.
Although he did not participate in the hearing, Vitter released a statement afterward arguing that Kendall’s testimony only increased suspicions and he pushed for greater inquiries through an independent Integrity Committee.
“The Interior Department’s IG appears to have been directly involved with the report that led to the job-crushing moratorium, even though she is supposed to remain completely independent,” Vitter stated, adding, “It’s pretty outrageous to know that politics seems to be likely influencing the office of the IG in lieu of the science.”
The House committee and Hastings have issued multiple subpoenas seeking internal records concerning the development of a report that served as the justification of the offshore drilling moratorium. Thousands of documents were sent back to them, but not all of the internal emails requested.
The committee also is subpoenaing five current and former Interior Department employees. They were invited to testify at a hearing last week, but the event was canceled by Hastings when the Interior Department did not respond. Hastings said the hearing will instead take place in September.