Did Birnbaum lie to Congress?

When the Minerals Management Service requested comments on the proposed 2010-2015 offshore drilling plan, American Solutions swung into action.  It mobilized its base of activists and generated almost 90,000 letters in support of the planned exploration policy, hoping to influence Congress and the White House to loosen restrictions on drilling and production.  That contributed to an overwhelmingly positive response to the proposal — which American Solutions only discovered when it pried the information from the Obama administration through a FOIA request earlier this year.

But that’s not the biggest story to come out of the FOIA request.  The woman who just got pushed from her spot at MMS misled Congress in testimony two months ago about the nature of that response — and apparently, Interior officials knew it and never corrected the record:

Minerals Management Service Director Liz Birnbaum has resigned. Upon hearing of the resignation, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Birnbaum “has been a strong leader, and we have done tremendous work.”  Salazar also said that Birnbaum helped to address a “culture of corruption” in MMS.

In reality, Liz Birnbaum contributed to the culture of corruption, enabled and abetted by a number of other political appointees at MMS and Interior, including Secretary Salazar, who never acted to correct the record after Birnbaum lied under oath to Congress in March about an offshore drilling comment period. …

After months of delay, we finally received on February 3, 2010, a set of documents that included an emailfrom Ms. Birnbaum to several Interior officials. As reported in the Wall Street Journal the next day, Birnbaum wrote “The Secretary may get questions about this [Freedom of Information Act] request while he’s in Houston … We do have a preliminary tabulation of the comments, it has not yet gone to the Secretary,” according to the email dated last Oct. 27 and sent to several Salazar aides. “So the Secretary can honestly say in response to any questions that he’s [sic] has not yet seen the analysis of the comments – staff is still working on it. I did, however, confirm to him the 2-1 split that these guys are emphasizing.”

Birnbaum’s October email was troubling enough for us to read in February, as it suggested a deliberate withholding of information to Secretary Salazar.

But what we didn’t know was that on October 13, 2009 – a full two weeks before Birnbaum’s email – MMS staff had already completed this 39-page memo on the breakdown of the 492,503 public comments, citing 332,929 comments in “general support” to the drilling program and 159,574 in “general opposition”– or 68% to 32% (i.e. 2 to 1).   We only learned about this 39 page memo when, on May 4, 2010, we received it along with additional documents in response to our original FOIA request.

How did Birnbaum describe this response to Congress on March 25th, 2010?  Despite confirming “a 2-1 split” in her internal e-mail, Birnbaum got a lot less specific when answering Rep. Doug Lamborn’s question:

U.S. REP. DOUG LAMBORN: As part of the development of the new OCS plan your agency accepted comments on the proposed 2010 plan.  There have been numerous reports regarding the nature of the public comment that came and there have been media reports about the content of those additional public comments.  Can you provide for this Committee a sense of how the comments came in on the draft proposed plan?

BIRNBAUM: …There isn’t a way, how you would characterize the comments depends on the interpretation of hundreds of different statements.   And so it is really hard to give a general sense of them, you need to go through and look at all of them… (emphasis added)

Here’s the video. Does Birnbaum “clear up what seems to be a misconception”?

In October, she knew enough to acknowledge the 2-1 margin of supporters over opponents. Birnbaum dodges it by saying that she hadn’t completed her analysis at that point and that she just acknowledged what American Solutions had claimed — but the e-mail reads much differently than that. Besides, this testimony took place six months later, and Birnbaum claimed that they still couldn’t make sense of the comments. If nothing else, maybe MMS should have hired someone who could handle a simple public-comment process. After all, isn’t the entire point of public comments to gain a sense of public support or opposition to a proposal? If Birnbaum couldn’t figure it out six months afterward, why was she in that position at all?

This probably isn’t perjury, but at the least it’s incompetence.

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