Scandal-ridden agency sends employees on taxpayer funded trip to Las Vegas

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Greg Campbell Contributor
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After several days of controversy, federal officials are holding firm to their view that an expensive Vegas trip was justified.

The same governmental agency busted in 2008 for drug use, sexual misconduct and accepting perks from the energy industry it was expected to regulate has been caught sending Colorado-based employees on a taxpayer funded junket to Las Vegas for a certification seminar when a cheaper alternative existed in Denver.

Some employees of the Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) stayed for an extra night in Vegas, also on the taxpayers’ dime, at the end of a conference to certify them as fraud examiners.

At the same time the Vegas conference was being held, another fraud certification seminar was being held in Denver, 9News reports. The station found that the agency spent $13,200 sending six Colorado-based employees to Nevada when it could have paid $200 each for them to receive the similar instruction without leaving home.

ONRR is part of the Department of Interior (DOI) and was known until recently as the Mineral Management Service (MMS), a once-obscure office of regulators charged with both collecting revenue from oil and gas operators, as well as issuing their permits.

Investigations in 2008 discovered the agency was run like a frat house. A report from the DOI’s inspector general detailed instances in which Denver-based workers of its royalties-in-kind program accepted gifts from those they were supposedly regulating. It also detailed sexual relationships government workers had with industry representatives and one another, as well as drug- and alcohol-fueled events sponsored by energy companies.

The report found that the regulators “frequently consumed alcohol at industry functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives,” according to The New York Times.

The department had “a culture of ethical failure,” according to the report’s cover memo.

The eye-popping conflicts had real-world effects. The agency’s coziness with industry was considered to be one of the factors in the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010; an investigation by the Associated Press found that inspections on the rig fell “well short” of MMS policies. The agency considered the Deepwater Horizon to be a model of safety, AP reported.

Then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reorganized the agency and promised reform.

In a statement to 9News that was also later sent to The Daily Caller News Foundation, ONRR managers defended the decision to send employees to a seminar in Las Vegas, even though a similar and far cheaper alternative existed in Denver.

“The employees met all requirements of Department of the Interior (DOI) criteria for travel, training and conference attendance,” the statement read. “They also met ONRR controls that are, in fact, stricter than those required by the DOI.”

Spokesman Patrick Etchart told TheDCNF that the agency reviewed the situation after 9News reported its story and found “no inappropriate action” took place.

He said the national conference is bigger and offers more seminars and educational opportunities than the event in Denver. He also said the focus is on international fraud issues that ONRR examiners often encounter. State conferences tend to focus on local fraud, he said.

“The curriculum does not even compare,” Etchart said. “There are well-qualified instructors and a much wider curriculum at the global conference.”

9News also found that taxpayers footed the bill for some employees to spend an extra night in Vegas after the conference ended at 12:30 p.m. on June 26. Taxpayers picked up a per diem, hotel bills and food allowances for those who flew home the following day, the station reported.

Etchart said that flights were simply booked — 2,500 people attended the conference, he said, and not all of ONRR’s employees could leave immediately after it was over.

But at least one governmental watchdog isn’t convinced.

“Business are struggling and [they] have cut back on their travel,” said Jon Caldara, the president of Denver’s Independence Institute, in an interview with TheDCNF. “It shows the casual and systemic disregard for taxpayer dollars.”

“If this one training was so important, there’s so many ways to do it, like bringing one or two instructors [out to Colorado] or  Skyping [employees] into the class,” he said. “There is no check or balance, there is no competition inside the government. It’s not like there are competitors who are going to drive them to find those savings and those innovations.”

“It’s not about the money,” Caldara told 9News, “it’s about the principle.”

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