In an interview this week, former Minerals Management Service (MMS) director Johnnie Burton defended the agency’s oversight and inspections of oil and natural gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico during her tenure.

“I have been gone from the Minerals Management Service for three years, and I may not remember a lot of details. But I remember enough to tell you, for the five years I was there, we never relaxed any rules — never changed any rules to make them any less safe,” Burton said in an interview with Wyoming’s Casper Star-Tribune. Burton resigned from the MMS in May 2007.

During her leadership, the agency — which was recently renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — was embroiled in controversies involving the undercollection of royalties and the royalty-in-kind (RIK) program, including sex and drug usage between a handful of employees in the program (see Daily GPI, Sept. 11, 2008; Jan. 24, 2006).

The troubled RIK program, which allowed the federal government to collect royalties from producers in-kind (product) rather than in cash, is being phased out by the Interior Department (see Daily GPI, Sept. 17, 2009). According to a September 2009 report by the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO), the agency lacks the tools and staff to calculate the full amount of RIK revenues due the federal government, and thus it risks losing millions in revenue (see Daily GPI, Sept. 15, 2009).

Burton told the newspaper that many of the RIK contracts that came under scrutiny were signed during the Clinton administration — years before she became MMS director. “But I was the one who got crucified.”

As for the ethical lapses involving sex and drugs at the MMS’ Lakewood, CO, office, “I heard rumors that we had problems in that area, and I went to the inspector general. I’m the one who turned them in,” she said.

While the entire agency got a black eye as a result of the GAO report detailing the ethical laps, Burton noted that the violations involved only 10 or 12 employees out of 500 in the Colorado office.

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