We live in acleptocracy.
Four government auditors who monitor leases for oil and gas on federal property say the Interior Department suppressed their efforts to recover millions of dollars from companies they said were cheating the government.
The accusations, many of them in four lawsuits that were unsealed last week by federal judges in Oklahoma, represent a rare rebellion by government investigators against their own agency.
The auditors contend that they were blocked by their bosses from pursuing more than $30 million in fraudulent underpayments of royalties for oil produced in publicly owned waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The agency has lost its sense of mission, which is to protect American taxpayers,” said Bobby L. Maxwell, who was formerly in charge of Gulf of Mexico auditing. “These are assets that belong to the American public, and they are supposed to be used for things like education, public infrastructure and roadways.”
The lawsuits have surfaced as Democrats and Republicans alike are questioning the Bush administration’s willingness to challenge the oil and gas industry.
In two of the lawsuits, two senior auditors with the Minerals Management Service in Oklahoma City said they were ordered to drop their claim that Shell Oil had fraudulently shortchanged taxpayers out of $18 million.
A third auditor, also in Oklahoma City, charged that senior officials in Denver ordered him to drop his demand that two dozen companies pay $1 million in back interest.
And in a suit that was filed in 2004, Mr. Maxwell charged that senior officials in Washington ordered him not to press claims that the Kerr-McGee Corporation had cheated the government out of $12 million in royalties.
In defying their own agency, the Interior Department’s auditors sued the oil companies under a federal law, called the False Claims Act, that was created to allow individuals to expose fraud against the government. People who successfully recover money for the government in such cases are entitled to a portion. A losing company is required to pay triple the amount of recovered money as well as back interest — potentially more than $120 million in the cases brought by the auditors.