Investigators not told about Cheney contact, official says
WASHINGTON -The Interior Department’s inspector general did not find political interference by Vice President Dick Cheney on a key environmental policy in part because investigators were not looking for it, an Interior official said Tuesday.A 2004 report by the inspector general found no basis for a claim by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that White House political advisers interfered in developing water policy in the Klamath River Basin in California and Oregon.
But investigators did not ask about Cheney – and no Interior employee volunteered information about him, said Mary Kendall, deputy Interior inspector general.
A former high-ranking Interior official, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, told The Washington Post that Cheney contacted her on a regular basis in 2001 and 2002, when the Bush administration was reworking water policy for the water-starved basin.
Wooldridge, who oversaw Klamath policy, never told investigators about her contacts with Cheney, Kendall said. And because investigators were focusing on White House political adviser Karl Rove – who was singled out in the Democratic complaint – they did not ask about Cheney, Kendall said.
“In the end, we don’t know what we don’t know,” she told members of the House Natural Resources Committee at a hearing exploring Cheney’s role in the Klamath.
Democrats charge that Cheney – by intervening on the side of farmers who needed water for irrigation – contributed to a 2002 die-off of about 70,000 salmon, the largest adult salmon kill in the history of the West.
Republicans counter that there is no evidence that Cheney did anything improper, nor that his actions were to blame for the fish kill.
Cheney declined to appear at Tuesday’s hearing, and a spokeswoman had no comment.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., told Kendall he was “perplexed by the notion that maybe Dick Cheney did something in the background that you didn’t spot.”
In the 2004 report, Inspector General Earl Devaney said he “found no evidence of political influence affecting the decisions pertaining to water in the Klamath Project. The individuals at the working-levels denied feeling pressured at all.”
Walden called the report “pretty comprehensive.” If Cheney had exerted undue influence, the inspector general was likely to have noticed, Walden and other Republicans said.
“I take that (report) to mean they didn’t feel pressure from Karl Rove, Vice President Cheney, the president, the pope or anyone else,” said Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif.
But Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the panel’s chairman, said Cheney has a history of acting in secret, and said Wooldridge’s comments to the Post contradicted her statements to Interior Department investigators.
Wooldridge, who has since left government, could not be reached Tuesday. She told the Post in a June 27 article that Cheney “was coming from the perspective that the farmers had to be able to farm – that was his concern. The fact that the vice president was interested meant that everyone paid attention.”
Rahall said he was concerned that Wooldridge – who resigned in January amid news reports she purchased a vacation home with former Interior Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles and a ConocoPhillips lobbyist – did not reveal her contacts with Cheney to the inspector general’s office. Wooldridge recently married Griles, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal.
“If she spoke to the press and not to the inspector general, that sends a bad signal that there was a fear of repercussions,” Rahall said.
While Wooldridge is now a private citizen, Rahall said he was considering whether to force her to testify to the Resources panel about her dealings with Cheney. “These activities occurred while she was at the (Interior) department,” he said, adding that her resignation should not be an excuse to avoid appearing before his committee.
Meanwhile, Michael Kelly, a biologist who worked on Klamath issues for the National Marine Fisheries Service, told the committee that “someone at a higher level” instructed his team of scientists to endorse a plan to divert water to Klamath farmers, regardless of the consequences to salmon and other fish.
The agency’s decision in early 2002 – months before the fish kill – “was no accident,” Kelly said. “Someone at a higher level than the regional NMFS office was responsible for forcing the illegal action.”
Kelly, who has since quit the federal agency, has filed a whistle-blower claim alleging that political concerns trumped science in the Klamath decision.
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