Interior Department unveils new ethics plan

Greater transparency needed to solve agency’s problems, watchdog groups say.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne outlined a new ethics plan recently that would include more comprehensive training and standards for all department employees, including political appointees.

An Interior Department spokesman confirmed that Kempthorne had proposed a "10-Point Plan to Make the Department of the Interior a Model of an Ethical Workplace" in a June 27 memo to employees. The plan designates a senior-level agency ethics officer, whose responsibilities include reviewing and implementing ethics practices.

The agency also will expand the ethics briefings and training it requires for Senior Executive Service and presidential appointees, create a panel to ensure "fairness in the management of conduct" and impose harsher penalties for inappropriate Internet use by employees.

Kempthorne also expressed support for ending the "Indian lobbying loophole." Under current law, almost all senior federal officials who leave the government must wait one year before returning to their former place of employment as lobbyists. Those who leave to lobby for American Indian tribes are exempt from the cooling-off period, an exemption challenged by proposed Senate legislation. In the memo, Kempthorne supported the legislation, which was introduced in January by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The ethics announcement came the day after J. Steven Griles, former deputy Interior secretary, received a 10-month prison sentence for his involvement in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. An Interior spokesman said the memo was unrelated to the Griles case, but rather part of "Secretary Kempthorne's continuing commitment to ethical service."

Some watchdog groups said the plan won't do enough to prevent future breaches.

"I don't see how punishing improper Internet use addresses the problems of unethical political appointees," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Beth Daley, a spokeswoman for the Project on Government Oversight, recommended greater transparency, a call that Ruch echoed.

"Transparency in the ethics process helps keep people in line in a way that a government agency simply can't," Daley said. "Congress and journalists should be able to participate in holding Interior employees to high ethical standards."

Daley said additional training -- on top of the annual ethics training all department employees receive -- won't help.

"When there's a scandal, everyone's first response is 'more training'," she said. "Sometimes you also need to fire people. There's hasn't been enough of that at Interior."

Daley did commend Kempthorne for addressing the lobbying loophole. "Interior was the nexus of all the Abramoff issues," she said. "A lot of [the issues] rose out of that loophole."

According to the memo, Kempthorne appointed ethics lawyer Melinda Loftin as ethics officer, and suggested Mark Limbaugh as head of the Conduct Accountability Board. Limbaugh, who served as assistant secretary for water and science, has since announced he will leave the agency.