Just why did Gale Norton leave the interior department?

 

It seemed so 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 an 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 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.

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 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 earlier.

The 357-page report, entitled "Gimme Five," for the term Abramoff and his partner used to describe some of their activities, paints a scathing and almost comical picture of sleaze surrounding the Interior Department. The report traces how 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.

The report also reaches an official finding of possible criminality. It reveals that Abramoff regularly told his clients that Griles was "our guy" in the Interior 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. The Abramoff investigation might be only one of the reasons Bush wanted a new Interior secretary. With former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne the new Interior secretary, the president also seems to be cutting his ties to one of Norton's recent policy proposals — one that was 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. The latest draft, prepared since Kempthorne replaced Norton, restores the 90-year-old approach toward protection of resources, says Laura Loomis, the senior director of government affairs for the National Parks and Conservation Association. The new version, on which Kempthorne consulted with the NPCA, also drops language calling for more partnerships 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. Jim DiPeso, the Seattle-based policy director for Republicans for Environmental Protection, noted that there was "quite a bit of pushback across the board," against the Hoffman draft, much of it from retired park rangers and members of Congress, including Republicans.

For what it is worth, Paul Hoffman also has a new job: He's a deputy assistant secretary in a non-policy-making position.

Jon Margolis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes from Barton, Vermont.

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