Well, I think I've solved one mystery related to the Bush administration's White House email scandal. It's a rather small one considering some of the larger questions hanging out there—the suspicious gap in the OVP emails being one of them—but it certainly did seem curious. I'm referring to the fact that, in 2003, contracting related a new White House email archiving system (a project that was abandoned just as it reached completion) was handled by the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service. You may recall that this particular division, which collects (or fails to) oil and gas royalties, was the subject of a series of scathing reports by the agency's inspector general. Beyond run-of-the-mill corruption and graft, the IG reported “a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity.” (One MMS official slept with oil company employees.)
The contracting revelation emerged late yesterday afternoon, when Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington released a trove of documents, which it had received from the White House, concerning the Bush administration's email archiving problems. The watchdog group, too, wondered why procurement for the White House was being handled by Interior. Flipping through the documents, I found the Minerals Management Service procurement official identified as the point of contact on one of the contracts, and this morning I gave her a call. Her name is Robin Doyle, and she's now working for another branch of Interior. She sounded a bit startled to be hearing from a reporter. For those of you thinking there's a conspiracy lurking beneath the surface here (Rove or Cheney must have been behind this!), I'm sorry to let you down. The reasons for Interior's involvement are apparently entirely bereaucratic. According to Doyle, Interior is home to an interagency procurement office. "It's a contract shop for any agency to use. It's perfectly legal, fine. Various agencies use it. It's no big deal."
As it happens, our Washington bureau chief, David Corn, stumbled upon a similar White House contracting mystery a couple years ago, which also led him to Interior. He was looking into a White House contract with defense contractor MZM, the company run by Mitchell Wade, who in 2006 pleaded guilty to bribing Duke Cunningham to the tune of more than $1 million in exchange for millions in government work. This particular contract for $140,000 was supposedly for office furniture and computer equipment for Dick Cheney's office. David noted that the amount of the contract raised eyebrows, because it matched the price tag of the yacht, the Duke-Stir, that Wade had bought for Cunningham. "This raises the intriguing possibility that Wade that summer needed money to buy Cunningham the yacht and—presto—a White House contract materialized." The MZM contract, like those for the White House email system, was handled by Interior's interagency contracting office. David reported:
This office was established during the Clinton administration as a good-government measure aimed at consolidating contracting efforts. But this procurement reform has become subject to abuse. A recent Senate armed services committee hearing examined how this change in the procurement system has allowed agencies to escape effective oversight. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report slammed the Interior Department's interagency contracting office for "significant problems" in handling Pentagon contracts granted to CACI International for interrogation and "other intelligence-related services" in Iraq.
So, there you have it. One White House email mystery solved. Many more to go.