'Cosy relationship' revealed between government office and oil industry

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Explosive findings about members of staff at the US government office responsible for the oil industry oversight accepting gifts from drilling companies, and even allowing rig operators to fill in their own inspection forms, are set to dominate congressional hearings in Washington DC today.

Astonishing revelations about the years-long "romance" between employees of the Minerals Management Service (MMS) office in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the big players in the Gulf of Mexico are contained in a report by the inspector general of the Interior Department, of which MMS is a part.

The acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, decided to unveil some of the report's findings ahead of the planned publication date because of their gravity, and because of the investigation that is now being urgently pursued in a number of hearings on Capitol Hill into the catastrophic blow-out of BP's well in the Gulf of Mexico last month.

Sensing a scandal that may be about to get much worse, Ken Salazar, the US Interior Secretary, also acknowledged the report's main findings last night. "This deeply disturbing report is further evidence of the cosy relationship between some elements of MMS and the oil and gas industry," he said.

"I appreciate and fully support the inspector general's strong work to root out the bad apples in MMS and we will follow through on her recommendations, including taking any and all appropriate personnel actions including termination, discipline, and referrals of any wrongdoing for criminal prosecution."

Gifts apparently received by regulators and inspectors – in clear contravention of federal ethics guidelines – include everything from free lunches to tickets to high-priced sporting events. The report also refers to MMS staffers in Louisiana using government computers to view pornography.

Already, there is a clear perception that what should have been an emphasis on safety was allowed over the years to give way to a quite different priority: keeping the industry happy.

Perhaps most shocking to members of Congress will be passages in the report describing how inspection forms were left with drill operators to fill in themselves so long as they left the signature boxes empty for the government employees to fill later.

The inspector general "found a culture where the acceptance of gifts from oil and gas companies was widespread throughout that office", although that has improved in recent years, the report says.

Ms Kendall added in a statement: "We discovered that the individuals involved in the fraternising and gift exchange – both government and industry – have often known one another since childhood."