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Voices of Power: Interior Secretary Salazar Talks of 'Mess That Was Left Here'

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Interior Secretary Salazar explains his reversal of Bush policies including mountaintop mining regulations and growing up on a farm without electricity or phone and selling the interior department to Jon Stewart.Video by Pierre Kattar and Jennifer Crandall/The Washington Post

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By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ken Salazar and Barack Obama both arrived at the U.S. Senate in 2004, and if anyone is wondering just how close they are, consider this little-known fact: They looked for housing together and ended up renting in the same building on the same floor.

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"We've been close. . . . He was number 99 in the Senate, and I was number 100," the new interior secretary said during an interview at his office. "He and I were tied for seniority in the last place, and under the rules of the Senate, when you have that kind of a tie, they determine seniority based on the population of the state."

A fifth-generation Coloradan, Salazar, 54, grew up on a ranch, where his mother still lives. You can still hear the slight lilt of his native "old" Spanish when describing his poor upbringing. It wasn't until he graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1981 that he brought electricity to the ranch.

Soft-spoken and cautious, Salazar bluntly declares that one of his major challenges is to "clean up" an agency that has been riddled with scandal, including the Minerals Management Service (MMS), which was found by the agency's inspector general to have "a culture of substance abuse and promiscuity"

Most recently, Salazar has focused on battling Republican senators holding up his choice for his deputy because the secretary rescinded Bush-era oil leases in Utah, saying they are too close to national parks. Senate sources predict that David J. Hayes will be confirmed as early as this week.

(For a full transcript of the interview, go here, or see the complete Voices of Power archive.)

Romano: Your former Republican colleagues in the Senate are blocking David Hayes, your pick to be deputy secretary. What's happening with that?

Salazar: There was a mess that was left here by the prior administration, and it essentially revolves around a perspective around here that the laws were to be skirted, and the consequence of that is that we're dealing with many decisions that have had to be revisited. It's in the context of cleaning up the mess and bringing about . . . a new direction that there has been a swing back by some in the Republican Party. . . . The unfortunate legacy of the Bush administration is at the political level, there were ethical lapses and illegal activity that occurred that created a blemish on this department probably like no other . . . when you have deputy secretaries who have been sent to prison, when you have criminal conduct that essentially has taken place in MMS.

Romano: Are you reconsidering the Utah leases in light of the fact that they have thrown up these barriers to Hayes's confirmation?

Salazar: No. I am reconsidering the leases in the context of my decision, but not because of whatever it is that is going on in the Senate today. I made the determination that I was going to pull back on those leases and basically call a timeout so that I could review what had happened and make a decision on how to move forward.

Romano: It has been suggested that a lot of heads have to roll here [at Interior] . . . and that you are too nice, maybe, to do it. Are you too nice?

Salazar: I think that anybody who looks at my record will find out that I may be nice, but I think people will also tell you I'm tough as nails, and I have no problem in taking the right measures to make sure that this department is changed and that we get down to the bottom of some of the bad decisions that have happened here.

There were many decisions that were made which essentially, I think, were a reckless abandonment of the law and environmental considerations.


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