FARMINGTON — A national government watchdog group has voiced concern over Steve Henke's quick transition from Bureau of Land Management district manager to New Mexico Oil and Gas Association president, saying the career change raises questions of Henke's BLM service.

The Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Oversight on Friday said Henke's hiring as NMOGA president is an example of the so-called revolving door between government regulatory agencies and the oil and gas industry.

Henke, who worked as district manager of the BLM Farmington field office for nine years, retired in May. NMOGA on Wednesday announced Henke would be the industry lobbying group's next president beginning Aug. 1.

Considering the fast transition, "you really question the integrity of his decisions and whether he was really acting with the taxpayer interest in his heart while he was working for BLM, particularly at the end of his tenure," said Mandy Smithberger, an investigator with the government whistleblower group. "There are some concerns that he was always very cozy with industry."

The Project on Government Oversight said it expects a two-year "cooling off" period before former government officials take on high-paying lobbyist jobs to ensure there is no conflict of interest with taxpayer-funded services.

"What we really get concerned about is that someone is using their public service as a way to cash in, that it shouldn't be a stepping stone for private profit," Smithberger said.


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Henke responds

Henke rejected the group's allegations as unfounded, saying his work over a 34-year career with BLM always was fair and balanced.

The new NMOGA president emphasized several new BLM policies under his tenure were tough on industry, including expansion of winter wildlife protection drilling restrictions from 220,000 acres to 450,000 acres,

doubling the number of BLM field inspectors in Farmington and encouraging companies to build new well sites on established pads.

"I increased the whole compliance and oversight of the oil and gas industry as district manager. That record is well documented under several internal reviews on our inspection and enforcement program," Henke said.

But the job of BLM district manager is not to police the oil and gas industry, he said. Instead, the BLM's focus was to ensure the development of already-leased oil and gas lands was fairly managed to account for other uses of public land.

"Some are going to be skeptical or critical just because of their philosophical concerns and opposition to oil and gas development on public lands. However, it's part of the Bureau of Land Management's mission," Henke said. "I tried to manage the development that was on those existing leases in a balanced way."

Henke said he was a good match for the NMOGA position because of his ability to work with people to collaboratively solve problems.

Leland Gould, chairman of the NMOGA executive committee, agreed. The decision to hire Henke as NMOGA president stemmed from his experience and established professional relationships with member companies rather than a history of favoritism toward industry, Gould said

BLM: Industry job is OK

BLM New Mexico Director Linda Rundell said Henke's hire as NMOGA president is not a conflict of interest because the state oil and gas association does not have any direct contractual arrangements with the BLM, meaning Henke could not profit directly from decisions he made while working with the federal government.

"This is an association, a lobbying advocacy-type group. They do not have a direct relationship with the BLM insofar as our regulatory authority over companies," Rundell said. "So that's why he's OK."

Henke's bid for the NMOGA job was approved by a BLM ethics officer prior to his application to the organization earlier this year. When Henke decided to retire from BLM in May, he knew he was among the top three candidates for the NMOGA job, Rundell said.

The state BLM director brushed off suggestions that Henke managed the Farmington office in hopes of transitioning into a job with the oil and gas industry.

"He always conducted the activities of the office in a very fair way," Rundell said. "I hardly think Mr. Henke had been plotting and planning his whole career to take over (the NMOGA president's) job."

Henke's experience with oil and gas regulation, his relationship with the BLM and his proactive approach to change will make the former field manager an asset to NMOGA, she said.

Rundell said she looked forward to a professional working relationship with Henke in his new role as NMOGA president.

Too close

The Project on Government Oversight, which identifies itself as non-partisan, expressed concern about Henke's ability to advocate for industry interests through former BLM colleagues, a practice that proposed federal regulation could prohibit, Smithberger said.

"He's really using those relationships that he built," she said of Henke's new role with NMOGA. "We think it's pretty appalling. You need to have that cooling-off period. We understand that personal relationships develop over time, but when it's coming so soon off of government service, we think that's an improper use of it."

James Monteleone:

jmonteleone@daily-times.com