|Then-MMS director Randall Luthi (right) hands a corporate leadership award to an ExxonMobil official in 2008.|
Document dates: October 29, 2009
Every Friday, POGO will strive to make one document available that we or others have obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), especially documents that have not previously been posted online. Some of these documents will be more important than others, some may only be of historical interest— although relevance is in the eye of the beholder. POGO is doing this to highlight the importance of open government and FOIA throughout the year.
By MIA STEINLE
In Washington, the revolving door is practically a fact of life. Federal employees routinely leave their posts for better-paying positions in the private sector--often in the very same industry they used to regulate. (It was a recurring joke in the 2011 political thriller, The Ides of March, and--oh!--did a downtown DC theater crowd chuckle when the characters riffed about leaving political life for cushy consulting positions on K Street.) But Michael Bromwich, the head of the Department of the Interior’s (DOI) interim gas, oil, and minerals drilling agency, told reporters this week that he won't take this route.
Bromwich said he’s going to stay out of “direct dealings” with the DOI’s newly created Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), when he steps down as director later this month. The Hill reported earlier this week:
“There has been too much of the revolving door in the past, too much effort to influence the agency's policy and regulatory judgments by former top executives and senior people in this agency and it has got to stop, and it is going to stop with me,” Bromwich added.
As The Hill notes, DOI has been rocked in recent years by ethics scandals involving drilling regulators, and the Department has seen its fair share of regulators leaving for positions in private gas, oil and minerals industry groups.
One of these regulators is Randall Luthi, the former director of DOI’s Minerals Management Service (MMS), the predecessor agency to BOEM and BSSE. About a year after he left DOI, Luthi went on to become president of the National Oceans Industry Association, a group that represents the offshore drilling industry. According to emails between Luthi and DOI’s Departmental Ethics Office, which POGO recently obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, Luthi also sat on a law firm review panel “to provide consultation advice” for oil company Taylor Energy in its dealings with MMS. The emails indicate that Luthi asked DOI if there would be a conflict of interest between his new and old positions.
The Departmental Ethics Office directed Luthi to U.S. Code section 207, which outlines restrictions on former federal employees. The law specifically allows former employees to work in the private sector, only prohibiting “certain services.” As the Departmental Ethics Office explained in an email to Luthi:
Section 207 imposes a lifetime bar that prohibits you from knowingly making, with the intent to influence, any communication to or even appearance before an employee of the US on behalf of someone else in connection with a particular matter involving specific party in which you participated personally and substantially as a Government officer and in which the United States has a direct and substantial interest. This does not prohibit behind-the-scenes assistance.
So, was it legal for Luthi to advise Taylor Energy? Yes, as long as he didn’t represent the company before DOI. But it’s an ethical grey area, as Luthi can use his knowledge of the inner-workings of DOI drilling regulation to Taylor’s benefit—an unfair advantage. This case illustrates yet another example of how a former government employmee can parlay a career financed by taxpayer dollars into a consulting gig.
Mia Steinle is a POGO investigator.