Because of an editing error, a story in yesterday's editions incorrectly reported the number of employes at the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management who were found to have potential conflicts of interest. The correct figure is 92 employes, or 14 percent of the 674 officals reviewed by federal auditors.
The Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management has failed to prevent potential conflicts of interest among its employes, including many who own stock in companies that hold federal mineral leases, congressional auditors said yesterday.
The General Accounting Office found that 14 percent of the 92 agency employes reviewed had "questionable" financial and business interests that could conflict with their official duties.
Those employes reported 141 questionable holdings in 1980, GAO said, and 125 involved stock in firms that have mineral leases on federal land. Some of the others have direct interests in federal lands, GAO said. It is illegal for any employe to acquire a direct or indirect interest in federal land while working at the bureau.
"There is no assurance that the system prevents employes from holding prohibited or conflicting financial interests," the auditors said.
Tim Monroe, a BLM spokesman, said the bureau has reviewed the 92 cases and will take action where necessary. The problem, he said, is that the bureau has to review 50,000 pages of financial disclosure statements every year for 4,000 of the bureau's 9,000 employes.
"That's a whale of a lot of paper," Monroe said. "The workload is immense. We are trying to adjust the workload so our people can complete these reviews. Our system of records and follow-up has not been good and we've taken steps to fix it."
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who requested the study, said he was alarmed to find that one out of seven bureau employes examined "had a questionable relationship with industry" at a time when Interior Secretary James G. Watt "plans to dramatically accelerate these same companies' access to federal lands."
A Markey aide said some of the employes' stock holdings were worth more than $10,000, and that an Interior official told him there were several serious and direct conflicts among the 92 cases.
The GAO said that the bureau has done a poor job of reviewing the financial disclosure statements, which are required by law. The ethics officials involved had too many other duties, provided little guidance to employes and failed to review their statements on time, the report said.
The GAO also said these officials did not provide reasons for approving the questionable statements, and that there was no instance in which they challenged any employe's holdings. Some employes, moreover, simply failed to file statements.
Monroe said the bureau has asked a few employes to divest their financial holdings in recent years, and that some of the 92 employes just reviewed may received similar instructions.
The GAO said that BLM director Robert F. Burford leased some land he owned in Colorado to several oil companies. But Monroe said Burford's royalty earnings are put into a trust fund and that the director has excused himself from any decisions involving these companies.
Before 1981, GAO said, the bureau allowed its employes to purchase industry stock as long as they were not in a position to affect the value of these holdings. The Interior Department has since barred bureau employes from acquiring such stock, regardless of their official duties, although exceptions are made for most employes who owned the stock before they were hired.