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Saying good riddance to Gale Norton

Not since the notorious James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Reagan, has an individual so diametrically opposed to protection of the nation’s dwindling and threatened natural resources been charged with their stewardship. Then came George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the energy cartel they serve, to call on Gale Norton, herself a Watt protégé, to deliver the public’s goods for private profits—which she did in stunning fashion. The good news is that Norton, like a rat deserting a ship sinking under its load of corruption, announced her resignation this week.

Those who value hunting, fishing, hiking and protection of remaining wilderness in the West for future generations were rightfully alarmed when Norton first joined the Bush team. After all, Norton had been a senior attorney for the notorious Mountain States Legal Foundation, which was started by none other than James Watt, and which, only five years ago, infamously challenged Montana’s much-cherished Stream Access Law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—and lost.

Nor were environmentalists needlessly crying wolf over Norton’s appointment. Just prior to joining the Bush administration, Norton has been senior counsel for Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber, dubbed “Colorado’s most politically-connected law firm” by the Rocky Mountain News. In 2001, the year Norton was appointed Secretary of the Interior, the firm lobbied Congress for 45 clients—including those with issues before Interior. Among them were Delta Petroleum Corp., Timet-Titanium Metals Corp., the Shaw Group (oil and power plants), Ustman Technologies (underground storage tanks), Warren Rogers Associates (products and services for chemical and petroleum storage tanks), and NL Industries, formerly National Lead. Norton was a registered lobbyist in Colorado for NL Industries.

“The fox guarding the hen house” could not be a more apt analogy for Norton’s tenure at Interior, and to say the hens got plucked would be putting it mildly. As The New York Times wrote in its editorial this week, Norton may have been “the most successful” Interior Secretary at implementing the agenda of the extractive industries on public lands. “Perhaps her signature moment was a secret deal in 2003 with Mike Leavitt, then governor of Utah, in which she not only exposed 2.6 million acres of previously protected lands to commercial development but also renounced her statutory authority to recommend additional lands for wilderness protection. There will be no new wilderness under my watch, she seemed to say, but there will be oil and gas.”

Closer to home, the Denver Post likewise excoriated Norton for her anti-environmental actions. “Under her watch, the department stripped protection from areas previously managed as wilderness, opened forests to increased logging, sent snowmobiles back into Yellowstone and pressed federal land managers to speed up drilling for gas on public lands.”

But environmental transgressions aside, what may have eventually driven Norton to jump off Bush’s sinking ship is the same controversy that may eventually drive Montana’s Conrad Burns from office—connections to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. For starters, Norton overrode her own inspector general’s warning that the ethical conflicts within the department were “a train wreck waiting to happen” and appointed J. Steven Griles, a former lobbyist, as her top deputy. Griles is now being investigated in the Abramoff case.

The Abramoff-Griles-Norton trail is twisted, so bear with me. Prior to becoming Interior Secretary, Norton co-founded a group called the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy. Don’t laugh, it was merely the precursor to Clean Skies, Healthy Forests and the rest of the Bush administration’s misleading nomenclature for programs that do just the opposite of what they suggest—which was plainly evident in the group’s corporate sponsors, which included the Chlorine Chemical Council, the National Coal Council, the Chemical Manufacturers Association and the National Mining Association.

During Norton’s tenure at Interior, the Council’s president was Italia Federici, who had a “personal relationship” with Norton’s deputy Griles. As Jack Abramoff wrote in one of his famous e-mails, “Unfortunately [Federici] is critical to me.” How critical? As reported by the Washington Post, Abramoff directed his American Indian clients to contribute about $500,000 to her group over three years, even though it had virtually nothing to do with Indian issues. The connection to Griles, as Abramoff put it, was expensive but necessary.

Besides setting up frequent meetings with Griles on requests from Abramoff, a 2002 e-mail from Abramoff to Federici specifically asked her to “make sure Steven squelches this again,” in reference to killing a casino that was being opposed by Abramoff’s clients.

During a Congressional investigation hearing on the Abramoff-Griles-Federici connection last November, North Dakota’s Sen. Byron Dorgan hit the nail right on the head when he told Federici: “It looks to me like you got paid for things that had nothing to do whatever with your organization. It looks to me like you were working for Mr. Abramoff and you were getting paid by Indian tribes to do it.”

Although Federici denied the allegation, Abramoff refers to Federici in one of his e-mails as “our conduit to Norton.” One of the questionable issues just happens to be the same one in which Conrad Burns is now entangled—securing a $3 million appropriation for one of Abramoff’s clients, the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe. As the Post story revealed, Abramoff e-mailed Federici saying: “We’re really going to need someone from the top down to tell [the acting Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs]…that this money is going to the Saginaw, period.”

“Got it,” Federici wrote back.

Norton denies any knowledge of these actions by her top deputy and the group she helped found. But as the Abramoff investigation deepens, those denials become considerably less believable—especially in light of Norton’s rather untimely resignation.

As part and parcel of one of the most corrupt administrations ever, history will eventually judge her declared innocence. But the legacy of environmental damage she leaves behind is undeniable and damning enough. For now, all we can say is good riddance to Gale—and hope for better days to come.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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