Head of Minerals Management Service Resigns

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Providing an answer to the question of who will be the first official to be forced out of the Obama administration following BP's catastrophic oil spill and flagging public confidence in the government's response, Elizabeth Birnbaum, the head of the Minerals Management Service, has resigned, National Journal's Darren Goode reports.


Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment today, Goode reports. Birnbaum was scheduled to testify at a hearing on the oil spill this morning but was replaced by Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes.

MMS is the branch of the Interior Department that handles leases and regulation of oil drilling and mineral exploration, both offshore and on U.S. land. It has come under fire and scrutiny lately as a report from the Interior Dept.'s inspector general detailed a widespread culture problem at MMS. Companies MMS regulated took employees to sporting events, bought them meals and lavish gifts. Employees in the Lake Charles and New Orleans offices viewed porn at work. It sounded pretty bad.

All of these ethical failures happened during the previous administration. The report examined MMS employees' activity prior to 2007, though the porn viewing occurred from 2005-2009. The timing of the report, however, was unfortunate for the Obama administration. When people hear about government failure, particularly by word of mouth without having looked at the IG report itself, the tendency is to blame whoever is in charge right now.

To have a report on MMS failures be released as thousands--or hundreds of thousands--of barrels of oil surge into the Gulf daily, with uncertainty over an end point and public confusion over why this is--well, it doesn't help public confidence in government.

This wasn't the first time a culture problem had been identified at Interior, or at MMS. In 2008, the Interior Dept.'s IG submitted a report to then-Secretary Dirk Kempthorne outlining a "culture of ethical failure" at MMS, citing widespread inappropriate gift-giving from industry to MMS employees during the Bush years. It was a scandal.

Birnbaum, of course, got there relatively recently. She was named MMS director in June of last year. Secretary Salazar implemented a new Ethics Guide in January 2009.

Goode reports that sumcommittee Chairman Jim Moran (D-VA) pointed this out to Salazar at the hearing and said he trusts no one will be "scapegoated."

Still, Birnbaum is the first to go after the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The public is dissatisfied with President Obama's handling of the Deep Horizon spill, and if the "top kill" method doesn't succeed in stopping the oil, dissatisfaction will only grow...and more administration people could lose their jobs over it.
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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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