Report: Former head of local BLM office violated policy
FARMINGTON — A federal ethics probe started in 2010 that examined the behavior of Steve Henke when he led the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Farmington field office says there were "questionable activities" at the office during Henke's tenure.
Henke, who left the BLM after eight years to take a top job at the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association in 2010, is accused of wrongdoing in a 2012 U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General report.
Those allegations include "accepting meals and other gifts from outside sources, failing to act impartially in the performance of his official duties, failing to disclose gifts on annually filed financial disclosure reports and failing to follow BLM policy with respect to the operation of shooting ranges on federal property," according to the report.
When reached by phone on a break from a dove hunting trip with friends in Truth or Consequences, Henke described the report and the six years he was under investigation as political in nature, "titillating" and "Monday morning quarterbacking."
"The findings say I 'may have' done certain things. Well, I 'may have' gone to the moon, but I didn't. I 'may have' tried to mislead people, but I didn't," Henke said. "The salient point to make is that there never was a finding that I was unduly influenced by the folks I did business with or untoward in the way I carried out my duties during my time (at the BLM)."
Henke stepped down from NMOGA on Sept. 1. In the report, federal investigators said they found "no evidence" to connect Henke to any violation of "conflict of interest laws" when he went to work for the oil and gas advocacy group.
The report states Henke "may have violated agency policy, federal laws and the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch” while leading the Farmington field office.
The 50-page report was initiated at the request of former BLM Director Robert Abbey. A heavily redacted version was obtained by the trade publication Greenwire as part of a Freedom of Information Act request and was published in a story earlier this month.
The report states Henke and other BLM employees provided "false statements to investigators and attempted to obstruct (the DOI) investigation."
"I would never lie to the Inspector General or ask others to lie on my behalf," Henke said. "In the final analysis, it's the lies that get you prosecuted for things. Look at Martha Stewart."
The report lists allegations such as Henke accepting "free hunting tags from landowners in Landrith," misusing his role to "sponsor and advocate the sale of BLM land to friends in Landrith," pushing through a permit for friends to build a private fence along a federal land boundary and authorizing a "commercial firearms range illegally constructed on BLM land."
Concerning meals or food delivered to the break room at the field office, Henke said he does not believe he ever exceeded the $20 per meal limit. He said food provided by oil and gas companies was simply "goodwill gestures of thanks and support for the (BLM) staff doing a superior job in an environmentally appropriate way."
The federal report has some allegations in common with a 2009 examination of Henke's BLM tenure by the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO examined data from BLM field offices from fiscal years 2006 to 2008. That report revealed "section 390 categorical exclusions" were used approximately 6,100 times — or about 28 percent of the time — to expedite the approval of 22,000 oil and gas drilling permit applications at agency offices nationwide.
In that same time period, the Farmington office used 1,389 exclusions, the second highest among 30 field offices highlighted in the report.
Section 390 of the federal government's 2005 Energy Policy Act gives the BLM authority to use the exclusions "to streamline the environmental analysis required when approving certain oil and gas activities," according to the GAO report.
BLM spokesman Zach Stone said in an email Friday evening that the Farmington field office issued 56 exclusions in 2015 and 23 so far this year. Those exclusions cover all areas the agency manages such as recreation permits, he said.
"All of the (exclusions) were signed within the scope of the authority of the BLM as guided through the National Environmental Policy Act handbook of an allowable (exclusion)," Stone said. He cited the recent W.E. Rock Grand National Championship event in the Glade Run Recreation Area as an example of an allowable exclusion the agency handles.
Under his tenure, Henke said the BLM followed the law whenever an exclusion was used to expedite a drilling permit.
"I defy anyone to go and pull any well without and any well with a categorical exclusion, drive out to the field today to each and tell me which one is which," Henke said.
The DOI report's release comes shortly after Ryan Flynn was announced as Henke's replacement at NMOGA. Flynn previously served as the secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department.
Mike Eisenfeld, energy and climate manager in Farmington for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said Flynn's hiring is indicative of the recurring pro-industry conflicts at the Farmington field office. For the last six years, Eisenfeld has sought information from the BLM and taken legal actions to try to show that the agency has favored oil and gas development over all other uses.
Eisenfeld's group sued to challenge the federal agency to turn over records, which he said it has yet to provide. He believes that is largely because of a lack of transparency and ineptitude on the part of the employees there.
"We're very concerned about patterns and practices. (The Farmington field office) is just winging it," Eisenfeld said. "It's the same sad story. We're getting stonewalled, delayed. (The BLM) is responding to industry at the expense of the public."
Stone said in his email Friday evening that under Rick Fields, the Farmington field office's new manager, the office is "wholly committed" to the BLM's mission "as one of multiple use and sustained yield."
Stone said the office would not comment on the DOI report or Henke's tenure with the field office.
James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.