Johnnie Burton, who has directed the Department of Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS) for five years, said she is leaving at the end of May. She plans to return to her home in Wyoming, she told Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

Kempthorne, a former Wyoming governor, praised Burton and, alluding to the controversy surrounding the oil and gas leasing program, said she had "confronted challenges head on with great purpose to do what was right." In a letter accepting her resignation, Kempthorne wrote, "You always conducted yourself with the utmost grace and style." Kempthorne said Burton had increased MMS' effectiveness and had improved accounting and oversight of the leasing program.

Although the leasing program's problems allegedly occurred before Burton took the MMS helm in 2002, Burton has been accused of not being aggressive enough in collecting all of the oil and gas royalties due to the government from offshore leases and to recover lost royalties from flawed leases (see Daily GPI, March 29; Feb. 28). The General Accountability Office (GAO) has estimated that about $1 billion on royalty payments had been lost because of a 1998-99 lease error and another $6.4-9.8 billion could go uncollected over the life of the leases.

California Rep. Darrell Issa (R) said Burton's departure "creates an opportunity to change a culture and history of failed management" at the agency. Burton said she first learned of the flawed leases in 2005 or 2006 and then began attempts to renegotiate the agreements with the oil and gas companies. Five companies have agreed to do so. However, Issa said Congress has uncovered evidence that Burton had been told of the lease problems as early as 2004. She did not deny that, but said she had no recollection of being told that early.

"Had she acted at that time, MMS would have had far more tools to fix the problem and recover royalties," said Issa.

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