The Interior Department's 'Relief Pitcher'

New Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne speaks with students from Pulaski, Va., at the Washington Monument.
New Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne speaks with students from Pulaski, Va., at the Washington Monument. (Photos By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Even in a big bureaucracy, some things can happen fast.

On his first day on the job this week as secretary of the interior, Dirk Kempthorne found out he is already a defendant in thousands of lawsuits, give or take a few.

Interior's deputy solicitor, David L. Bernhardt, tried to break the news gently, noting that Kempthorne's name was simply replacing that of his predecessor, Gale A. Norton. And in some cases he's not formally named, or the Justice Department is taking the lead. "Don't take it personally," Bernhardt said.

Resolving the long list of lawsuits -- including one accusing the government of cheating American Indians out of as much as $137.2 billion over the past 118 years -- is one of many tasks the former Idaho governor and senator faces as the nation's 49th interior secretary. With 30 months before the administration ends, he must confront everything from a huge maintenance backlog at the national parks to a contentious debate over how to best protect endangered species.

"I'm coming in in the seventh inning. I'm the relief pitcher," Kempthorne, 54, said in an interview in the midst of his first official day, which began at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, when he left his apartment for a Fox News interview, and ended at 9 p.m., after he polished off Costco sandwiches his staff had brought in and did some paperwork. "I'm going to come in there, and I want to make sure it's a winning series."

Kempthorne spent his first day doing what he does best: stroking the egos of interest-group leaders, chatting up tourists standing by historic memorials he now oversees, and bonding with politicians. Gamely hobbling on the left foot he broke more than a week ago while jogging on uneven pavement, he shook hands with every Interior employee he could spot and signed autographs for schoolchildren before heading to the top of the Washington Monument.

Aware that federal prosecutors are investigating several current and former Interior officials for possible improper ties to disgraced GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Kempthorne began his day with an ethics briefing by agency lawyers, working on an agency-wide memo on professional conduct and asking if he could accept a personalized windbreaker from a political group or a piece of Park Service haberdashery. (Both are fine, as long as the outside gift was reported; a couple of hours later, Kempthorne sported the Park Service baseball cap on the Mall.)

During a lunch with officials from the National Congress of American Indians, he raised the possibility of settling the suit tribal members have lodged against Interior, and he told his staff that President Bush has urged him to use the department as a bridge to its often fractious constituents.

"He said, 'I don't want it to be polarized. I want us to be bipartisan,' " Kempthorne said.

Unlike Norton, who did little to cultivate environmental leaders, Kempthorne has occasionally made overtures to liberal groups. On Tuesday he held a conference call with 25 conservation, environmental and sporting organizations, including the Defenders of Wildlife and Environmental Defense. He used the word "respect" at least a dozen times during the day, telling the environmentalists at the close of their conversation: "This was my way of showing respect for all you men and women."

"The fact that he made the call was more noteworthy than the substance of the call itself," said Michael J. Bean, a senior attorney for Environmental Defense, who has worked with Kempthorne on protecting endangered species. "He's an open and accessible guy, willing to listen to points of view with which he might ultimately disagree."

Other environmentalists pointed out that in the end, Kempthorne usually goes against them. As governor, he resisted the reintroduction of grizzly bears into Idaho's Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness area (he called them "flesh-eating") and called for eradicating wolves in his state "by any means necessary." During his one term in the Senate, he earned a 1 percent voting score from the League of Conservation Voters.

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