Gulf oil spill moratorium inquiries rebuffed, investigator says

05 08, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

A senior federal investigator says he was denied access to a White House official and full email records as he tried to determine whether a BP oil spill report was intentionally edited to erroneously suggest outside experts supported the Obama administration's deepwater drilling moratorium. The experts, in fact, did not endorse the moratorium the administration ordered after the 2010 spill. The White House and Department of Interior later said the mistake was inadvertent, a result of an early-morning edit that moved some material from the body of the report to the executive summary.

In one email obtained by The Times-Picayune, Richard Larrabee, senior special agent assigned to investigate the matter for the Department of Interior's inspector general, wrote: "I truly believe the editing 'WAS' intentional -- by an overzealous staffer at the White House. And, if asked, I, as the case agent, would be happy to state that opinion to anyone interested." Larrabee declined Monday to comment on the emails.

The Interior Department report, issued a month after the BP oil spill, is now before Congress, with the House Natural Resources Committee subpoenaing some of the same email messages that Larrabee had sought.

In a series of emails, Larrabee voices his displeasure on the handling of the investigation. He complains, for example, that the final inspector general's report, which concluded there was no evidence of intentional misrepresentation, didn't note that investigators were denied full access to requested email messages.

Associate Interior Inspector General Kris Kolesnik said the office stands behind its report and that the office received full cooperation, including access to documents, requested from agency officials.

Adam Fetcher, a Department of Interior spokesman, said the department moved to correct the spill report "immediately after being made aware of the error in the executive summary."

While the moratorium was controversial, especially with the oil industry and Louisiana lawmakers, Fetcher said: "With the full force of the federal government responding to the largest oil spill in U.S. history, Secretary (Ken) Salazar recognized that the nation could neither afford the risk nor respond to a second catastrophic spill in the Gulf at the same time."

Larrabee concedes that email messages were provided from Salazar's office, but he said the final inspector general's report should have had a disclaimer "that we did not independently validate" them by reviewing computer hard drives.

In one comment sent to his supervisors, Larrabee expresses dismay the final IG report "makes no mention" that investigators sought unsuccessfully to interview Joe Aldy, a White House official involved in the last-minute editing of the spill report. The report "is simply silent about our desire to interview Aldy and the White House declination," he wrote.

His emails make mention of a summary sent in 2010 to Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, on the inspector general's review of the department's oil spill report. The two Louisiana lawmakers had requested the inspector general investigation. The summary reiterates that agency officials insist the mistake was inadvertent.

In an email to a supervisor, Larrabee asks: "How did the summary work for you? Do you think it will be enough of a diversion so that the senator and the congressman will not bother requesting the actual report on investigation, as suggested?" He also said investigators weren't given full access to "records, reports, audits, review documents, papers, and recommendations of other material" as Salazar himself had decreed in an April 20, 2010, memo.

"I am deeply concerned that this is yet another example of how a double standard is being followed in this investigation in granting great deference to the secretary's office that would not be granted to any other department bureaus or employees. For what it is worth," Larrabee writes in an email.

The email messages given to the Times-Picayune cover the years 2010 and 2011.

In response to the emails, Kolesnik, the associate inspector general, said the Department of Interior provided "all the relevant documents that were requested." About its failure to get an interview with the White House official responsible for editing the agency's oil spill report, including the recommendation for the moratorium, Kolesnik said the inspector general "does not have authority to compel" White House cooperation.

The Obama administration, like previous administrations, has asserted executive privilege to rebuff efforts to obtain documents and interviews with officials who advise the president.

Asked about Larrabee's statement that, in his opinion, the editing mistake was intentional, Kolesnik said an investigator is "entitled to have a personal opinion, but the OIG reports are factual." In several emails, Larrabee writes that Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee, which took over control of the panel after the GOP victories in the House 2010 elections, would likely pursue the White House report on the moratorium more aggressively than the previous Democratic majority.

"The chickens may be coming home to roost," he said.