Obama Administration Official Resigns in Wake of BP Spill

May 27, 2010 1:01pm

ABC News’ Yunji de Nies Reports: S. Elizabeth Birnbaum is the latest Obama administration official to resign in the wake of the BP oil spill disaster.  In a short letter addressed to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the now former Director of the Mineral Management Service takes an apparent dig at Bush administration, writing, “I’m hopeful that the reforms that the Secretary and the Administration are undertaking will resolve the flaws in the current system that I inherited.” Birnbaum took the job in July of last year.  Since the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, her agency has been under fire for what critics call lax oversight over the energy leases they approve and managed.  In a statement, Secretary Salazar praised Birnbaum’s tenure, calling her “a strong and effective person and leader.”  He said she “resigned today on her own terms and on her own volition.” At a news conference this afternoon, President Obama told reporters he was informed of Birnbaum’s resignation earlier this morning and did not know the circumstances by which it came about. “I can tell you what I’ve said to Ken Salazar, is that we have to make sure if we are going forward with domestic oil production that the federal agency charged with overseeing its safety and security is operating at the highest level,” he said. The President said more work still needs to be done to achieve that at MMS. “Salazar came in and started cleaning house and culture had not fully changed at MMS, and absolutely I take responsibility for that,” President Obama said.
Scandal isn’t new to MMS.  Perhaps the most notable embarrassment came in September of 2008. MMS Employees, who are tasked with ensuring that taxpayers get their share of oil and gas revenues from companies drilling on federal land, were fired for accepting gifts, favors – even sex – from oil industry employees.  Some admitted using marijuana and cocaine on the job.  When so-called “oil for sex” scandal broke Danielle Brian the Executive Director for Project on Government Oversight told ABC News, “They have not only not been doing their jobs, but they have not been doing it because they have literally been in bed with who they are supposed to be overseeing,” Under the Bush Administration, the Interior Department as a whole was rocked by one scandal after another.  Sharon Buccino of the Natural Resources Defense Council told ABC News that for years it was completely mismanaged. “Unfortunately we had people in control under the Bush administration who really put the interest and the profit of their friends in the oil and gas, coal industry front and center,” Buccino said. Buccino points to Former Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald, who the agency’s own Inspector General reported forced scientists to change their findings, even giving internal documents to oil companies and land developers.  One report found that MacDonald kept some at-risk animals, like the Gunnison Prairie dog, off the endangered species list. “She bullied scientist. She intimidated them into changing their answers,” said Tim Donaghy of the Union for Concerned Scientist. Though MacDonald’s motives were never made clear, and she did not benefit financially, MacDonald resigned.  So did Gale Norton, Interior Secretary for five years under President Bush, after she was tied to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.  Her deputy, Steven Griles, was sentences to 10 months in prison for lying about his ties to Abramoff to the U.S. Senate. In December of 2008, President Obama pledged to clean up the entire Interior Department, with the help of then-nominee Salazar. “There have been too many problems and too much emphasis on big time lobbyists and not enough emphasis on the American people and that is going to change under Ken Salazar,” he said in the East Room of the White House. In accepting the nomination, Salazar said he too was ready for reform. “It will be clear that we will no longer tolerate those types of lapses at any level of government from political appointees or career employees,” Salazar said. — Yunji de Nies

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