WASHINGTON — A senator has put a hold on the confirmation of an Interior Department lieutenant until he's satisfied with Secretary Dirk Kempthorne's plan to address ethical lapses within the sprawling department.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has asked Kempthorne to detail how the Interior Department will address internal ethics problems now that his deputy secretary heading the reform, Mark Limbaugh, has left to pursue a lobbying career. Wyden said he will continue his hold on Lyle Laverty as the assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks until he gets answers about who will be working on the department's ethics guidelines.
Limbaugh had been chairman of the Interior Department's Conduct Accountability Board, but resigned July 13 to work for the Ferguson Group, a Washington lobbying firm representing local and state water agencies with interests before the Interior Department.
Wyden's original hold on Laverty came after an inspector general's report found that the deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, Julie MacDonald, was involved in several ethical breaches — among them the removal of the Sacramento splittail fish from the federal threatened and endangered species list to benefit her 80-acre California farm.
MacDonald resigned the day Wyden placed the hold on Laverty's confirmation.
Now, with Limbaugh gone, Wyden wants assurance that there will still be someone at the Interior Department who will address any ethics lapses.
"We are still waiting on more specifics," said Wyden's spokeswoman, Jennifer Hoelzer. "We are looking for a little more than vague reassurances."
A spokesman for the Interior Department, Chris Paolino, said that Limbaugh's departure won't change the mission or procedures of the department's Conduct Accountability Board. Kempthorne is committed to ethical conduct by his employees, Paolino said.
"The secretary has been very focused on holding and making sure that the department behaves to the highest ethical standards," Paolino said. "It's been an ongoing commitment to him. It's a commitment that began on day one and has continued over the past year."
At his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Laverty pledged to address some of the ethical and morale problems that have plagued the portion of the Interior Department he would oversee if he finally is confirmed.
People will be "treated with respect," and it will be clear to those who work for him that there's a "difference between questions of science and policy," Laverty said.
Laverty has company in Senate confirmation limbo. Jim Caswell, currently director of Idaho's Office of Species Conservation, is also awaiting confirmation as director of the Bureau of Land Management. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said last week he would hold up Caswell's confirmation. Salazar wants the Interior Department to give Colorado more time to review the federal agency's plans to drill on the Roan Plateau, a place many in his state want off-limits to oil and gas drilling.
Caswell appeared before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee last week as a part of his confirmation process, and like Laverty, got good reviews from both Republicans and Democrats.
The Interior Department will continue to work with both Salazar and Wyden to persuade them to lift their holds on the two nominees, Paolino said.
"In both situations we're looking to work with the senators to address all the concerns they have to remove the holds and get them confirmed by the Senate," he said. "We're looking to move that as quickly as possible."