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.

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