POGO's predicament

A public advocacy group dedicated to unlocking government secrets is working hard to keep a few of its own.

A public advocacy group dedicated to unlocking government secrets is working hard to keep a few of its own.

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) was in the hot seat at a recent hearing of the US House subcommittee on energy and mineral resources.

The committee was investigating the facts behind POGO's payment of $383,600 each to two federal employees from its share of a $1.2 million federal royalty lawsuit settlement (OGJ, July 5, 1999, p. 34).

The men were Bob Berman, of the Department of Interior's Office of Policy Analysis, and Robert Speir, now retired from the Department of Energy.

Because the payments were made to government employees working in oil policy areas, the federal and congressional investigations are examining possible conflicts of interest and the possibility that the sums were compensation for improper assistance.

Government ethics policies prohibit employees from accepting awards without prior agency approval or from accepting outside compensation for doing their official duties.

Focus

The subcommittee wanted to know how POGO became involved in the royalty lawsuit, and why it shared its proceeds with Berman and Speir.

The suit was filed under the False Claims Act, which allows the court to keep it secret until the federal government decides to participate.

John Martineck and Benjamin Johnson Jr., two oil traders who originally brought the suit, told the subcommittee that somehow that secret was leaked.

Johnston said Berman repeatedly called him seeking information on oil company royalty practices: "He was representing himself to be the Minerals Management Service watchdog on this issue."

The POGO hearing split the subcommittee down party lines, with Democrats protesting and attempting to limit the inquiry. They said that the panel should be investigating royalty underpayments, not POGO.

Barbara Cubin (R-Wyo.), subcommittee chairman, at one point accused the Democrats of "playing games, being rude, and being disruptive."

The subcommittee plans to question Berman, Speir, and Pogo Executive Director Danielle Brian at a second hearing May 18.

Reactions

Afterward, Cubin said the hearing "highlighted the sad fact that POGO officials don't seem to believe that public service should be open to the public.

"Despite repeated questioning under oath, the entire POGO board of directors could not remember who authorized paying more than $750,000 to two federal employees. And not one of the POGO board members would acknowledge under oath that the Department of Justice clearly informed them that they should not (make the payments)."

POGO has denied the latter allegation. It also has battled subcommittee efforts to obtain phone records and other documents.

The group has launched its own attack against Cubin and resources committee Chairman Don Young (R-Alas.), detailing the donations they have received from oil companies.

It said, "Big Oil's politicians have turned their attention to harassing and attempting to discredit" POGO and are "wasting thousands of dollars fabricating phony scandals about POGO."

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