Why did Norton really leave Interior?

  • Jon Margolis

 

It seemed so swift and sudden, the way Interior Secretary Gale Norton resigned back in early March.

It wasn’t like the other resignations from President George Bush’s Cabinet. Everyone in town knew that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was the administration’s foreign policy odd-man-out before Powell announced he would leave at the end of the first term. As to former Treasury secretaries Paul O’Neill and John Snow, there was so much leakage from the White House speculating about — and encouraging — their departures, that the torrent alone could have swept them from office.

There was nothing like that with Norton. Not a hint of displeasure had seeped out of the White House. Almost up to the day she quit, Norton had been setting policies, making plans, acting as though she’d enlisted for the duration.

And then — bloop! She was gone, ready, she said, to return to the West and to the private sector, though apparently she had no specific job lined up.

So a few tongues wagged: Did she jump, or was she pushed? There was this investigation into whether disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff had exerted undue influence over Interior via Norton’s top deputy at the department, J. Steven Griles, and one of her close friends, Italia Federici.

Just what an administration with dismal approval ratings does not need — a spreading scandal involving a sitting Cabinet secretary. It would have been neither surprising nor unprecedented if some senior White House or Republican Party official had called Norton quietly one evening suggesting — no, make that commanding — her immediate departure.

We still don’t know whether that happened. But we do know that if it didn’t, whoever didn’t do it should be fired. No minimally competent political operative could read the Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigative report into the Abramoff scandal without knowing that Norton had to go. That report was not issued until June 22, but — again — only a political naïf would doubt that the Republicans running the committee, whether chairman John McCain of Arizona or someone on the staff, would have warned the higher-ups some months earlier.

The 357-page report, entitled Gimme Five, (the term Abramoff and his partner used to described some of their activities) paints a scathing and almost comical picture of sleaze surrounding, and perhaps infiltrating, the Interior Department.

The report traces the revolving money stream that we already knew about, through which Abramoff got his client Indian tribes, awash in casino money, to contribute $500,000 to the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA), an organization started in 1997 (under a slightly different name) by Norton, Federici and their (and Abramoff’s) friend, conservative strategist Grover Norquist (HCN, 11/28/05: In Washington, the most outrageous sins are legal).

But the report also reaches an official, if not judicial, finding of obvious chicanery and possible criminality on Norton’s official and personal periphery. It reveals that Abramoff regularly told his clients that Griles was "our guy" in the department, that Norton was "involved" with CREA, and that the contributions to CREA were enhancing their clout at Interior.

It also asserts that CREA used tribal money "for purposes unintended by the tribes," suggesting without quite alleging that Federici was taking the tribal money and doing nothing in return.

Most damaging to Norton were the Indian Affairs Committee’s suggestions for further investigations into the truthfulness of Federici’s and Griles’ testimony. No administration will tolerate perjury trials of a Cabinet officer’s close associates.

But there’s another twist to the story. While more-than-sufficient reason to want her out, the Abramoff investigation might be only one of the reasons Bush wanted a new Interior secretary. With Norton’s replacement, former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, the president also seems to be cutting his ties to one of Norton’s recent policy proposals — one that was only further damaging the president’s already-battered approval ratings.

Norton never officially endorsed a controversial draft of a new National Park Service management plan proposed by then Deputy Assistant Secretary Paul Hoffman. But neither did she express any reservations about its move to place recreation on a par with resource protection as Park Service policy (HCN, 11/14/05: Business booster still guides national park rules).

The latest draft, prepared since Kempthorne replaced Norton, "restores the original approach toward protection of resources of the past 90 years," says Laura Loomis, the senior director of government affairs for the National Parks and Conservation Association. "Conservation of resources comes before providing for enjoyment."

Loomis says the new version, on which Kempthorne consulted with the NPCA, also drops language calling for more "partnership" with private firms in managing the parks.

There has been no public announcement of this policy change, so there has been little reaction to it, and even less analysis of it. Jim DiPeso, the Seattle-based policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, noted that there was "quite a bit of push back across the board," against the Hoffman draft, much of it from retired park rangers and members of Congress, including Republicans.

"They figured, the poll ratings being what they are, what would they have to gain," DiPeso says. "It made sense to go back to policies more in line with park management tradition."

For what it is worth, Paul Hoffman is now deputy assistant secretary for performance, accountability, and human resources. That is not a policy-making position. Whether the new assignment is a demotion resulting from his earlier Park Service draft is uncertain, but a better bet than you’d find in any of those casinos that once hired Jack Abramoff.

Jon Margolis writes from Barton, Vermont.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!