A House subcommittee last week passed a resolution citing threemembers of a public watchdog group for refusing to respond toquestions about payments they made to two federal officialsinvolved in oil royalty policy.

Officials of the Washington D.C.-based Project on GovernmentOversight (POGO) refused to answer questions and provide certainrecords to the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee in Mayregarding reports that they made payments of more than $350,000each to two oil policy advisors in the Department of Energy (DOE)and Department of Interior (DOI).

The payments reportedly came out of POGO’s share of awhistle-blower lawsuit seeking recovery of back royalties on oil.But POGO indicated it now is turning its sights to gas royaltyunderpayments, which it believes could be more lucrative than oil.

Cited by the subcommittee were Keith Rutter, POGO’s assistantexecutive director; Henry M. Banta, director and former chairman ofPOGO’s board; and Danielle Brian Stockton; director of the group.The DOI official who allegedly paid was by POGO, Robert Berman,also declined to answer the subcommittee’s questions, but he wasnot cited. A subcommittee aide indicated more parties were likelyto be cited in the future.

The House subcommittee’s resolution is the first step in acontempt of Congress action against the three POGO officials. Theresolution must now be acted on by the House Resources Committeeand the full House before it is sent to the Department of Justice(DOJ), which then will decide whether to prosecute the POGOofficials. The three could face fines up to $1,000 and a year inprison. In addition to the House, the DOJ and the inspector generalof the DOI are investigating the allegations.

POGO allegedly made the payments to Berman and Robert A. Speir,who has since retired from DOE, from funds it received inconnection with a whistle-blower lawsuit filed in Texas. Mobil Oilagreed to pay $45 million to settle the lawsuit, which was broughtby a former Arco Oil employee. The ex-Arco worker agreed to shareits portion of the settlement with POGO, which received $1.2million. POGO then paid one-third of that amount to each Berman andSpeir, who, according to POGO, “often objected to the way the oilcompanies calculated how much they owed the government” inroyalties.

POGO has called the payments “public service awards,” but theHouse subcommittee contends they are violations of federal ethicsrules, which prohibit federal employees from accepting orsoliciting outside compensation for doing their official duties.

The subcommittee wants to know “why, how and under whatcircumstances did POGO agree to evenly split millions of dollarswith two federal employees; did the payments corrupt or cast ashadow over any oil valuation policies; and were agency ethicspractices circumvented or were they too lax to stop this secretdeal?” asked Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Cubin (R-WY) lastweek.

Although the payments have been for recovery of back oilroyalties, POGO’s Brian-Stockton has indicated that the group isnow turning its attention to companies that have underpaid theirnatural gas royalties. “Having overcome Big Oil’s efforts, POGOwill now focus on investigating and preventing future underpaymentof natural gas royalties — an underpayment estimated to dwarfthose of oil royalties,” she said at a May 18 subcommittee hearing.

Susan Parker

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