So reports Peter Stone at the Center for Public Integrity: the Department of Justice is winding down its investigation of whether former Interior Secretary Gale Norton gave preferential treatment to Shell in awarding three oil-drilling leases to one of its subsidiaries about a year before taking a job as Shell's general counsel; sources tell Stone no charges are expected to be filed.


Strangely, this is probably a break for the Obama administration, even though Norton was a Bush appointee and left the department in 2006. Since BP's oil spill, the culture of the Interior Department and, more specifically, the Minerals Management Service, has drawn public concern, thanks largely to the timely release of an inspector general's report on Bush-era corruption and abuses, including not just improper gift exchanges with industry types, but the viewing of porn at work. 

It's fair to say that public dismay over the Interior Department was a bad thing for President Obama and his administration, as he struggled to convey a sense of government competence and fought off partisan criticisms that his executive branch had lackadaisically responded to the spill. All of the abuses in the IG report occurred when President Bush occupied the White House, but a sense of failed government, I think, posed an issue for the people running it now.

The new head of that department, Elizabeth Birnbaum, resigned in May despite not having anything to do with what was in the report, and Obama, for his part, felt the need to defend his Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, after the culture of corruption at Interior became a hot topic.

"When Secretary Salazar took office, he found a Minerals and Management Service that had been plagued by corruption for years -- this was the agency charged with not only providing permits, but also enforcing laws governing oil drilling," Obama said at his first full-fledged press conference after the spill in the East Room on May 27, delving into the report and the problems at Interior. "And the corruption was underscored by a recent Inspector General's report that covered activity which occurred prior to 2007 -- a report that can only be described as appalling. And Secretary Salazar immediately took steps to clean up that corruption. But this oil spill has made clear that more reforms are needed."

Perhaps it sells short people's capacity to tell the difference between Bush officials and Obama officials, but it's also true that if charges were filed against Norton, we would be reminded that Salazar and Obama's new appointees are supposed to be cleaning up the culture of the Interior Department, and we might worry a bit more about whether or not they have.

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