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Originally published Friday, December 10, 2010 at 2:59 PM

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Ex-Interior chief Norton cleared in ethics probe

The Justice Department has closed an ethics probe of former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the Obama administration said Friday.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON —

The Justice Department has closed an ethics probe of former Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the Obama administration said Friday.

Norton was accused of using her position to steer lucrative oil leases to Royal Dutch Shell PLC, where she took a job soon after leaving her post at Interior.

But a two-year investigation failed to prove a conflict of interest, said Mary Kendall, the Interior Department's acting inspector general, who announced Justice's decision.

"We found that Norton was very interested in the (oil lease) program during her tenure as secretary," Kendall said. "But we did not find evidence to conclusively determine that Norton violated conflict-of-interest laws, either pre- or post-employment with Shell."

Kendall said Interior appeared to give Shell preferential treatment in at least two instances, but that she could not link either case to Norton, who served as Interior secretary from 2001 to 2006. Kendall shared the results of her probe with Justice officials, who declined criminal prosecution, she said.

The Interior investigation focused on a 2006 decision by the department's Bureau of Land Management to award three oil shale leases on federal land in Colorado to a Shell subsidiary. Oil from the leases could eventually earn the company hundreds of billions of dollars.

Investigators examined whether Norton, President George W. Bush's first Interior secretary, violated a law that bars federal employees from discussing employment with a company if they are involved in a decision that could benefit that company. Months after granting the leases to Shell, Norton left the agency. Shell hired her later that year as an in-house counsel for its unconventional fuels division, which includes oil shale. She no longer works for Shell, the company said.

Norton could not be reached for comment Friday.

Before becoming Interior secretary, Norton was Colorado's attorney general and worked as a private lawyer for timber, oil and mining companies. At Interior, she supported expanded oil and gas drilling on government-owned land.

The development of oil shale largely in the West was one of the technologies the Bush administration wanted to explore aggressively. In response to a recommendation by then-Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force, the land management bureau issued six demonstration leases in Colorado and Utah.

Shell was the only company to receive more than one lease.

Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to comment Friday.

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Shell said in a statement that Kendall's report "rightfully concludes that Shell did not violate the law. Shell adheres to the highest standards of ethical behavior."

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the appearance of wrongdoing remained even if Norton apparently didn't engage in criminal behavior.

"It sounds like Secretary Norton was earning her salary from Shell even before they put her on the payroll," Rahall said.

(This version CORRECTS that Norton no longer works at Shell.)

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