WASHINGTON – The Minerals Management Service announced Aug. 15 that it will meet with the State and Tribal Royalty Audit Committee only once a year in Denver instead of three to four times a year in varying locales, as it has since STRAC’s establishment by act of Congress.
The committee, composed of auditors representing 11 states and seven tribes, assists the MMS Royalty Management Program in the complex process of auditing royalty receipts from federal and Indian lands. The states and tribes contract with MMS to provide resources and local knowledge that helps to guide MMS in its audit practices and its compliance with federal laws and regulations. Congress originally authorized STRAC to improve the Royalty Management Program.
MMS, a branch of the Interior Department, described the decision as a bid for more effective meetings and more efficient use of taxpayer dollars. Attorney Lee Ellen Helfrich of Lobel, Novins and Lamont in Washington, representing the state of California on its STRAC contract, described it as retaliation for committee letters to Congress that highlighted ongoing problems with the Royalty Management Program. In addition, she said committee members have been quoted in newspaper stories from last spring that found MMS to be undercollecting gas royalty payments.
Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight in Washington, said reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, found STRAC auditors credible because of their professional expertise and knowledge of the Royalty Management Program. MMS decided, she said, “We’re going to shoot the messenger here; we’re going to get rid of the people who are talking about the problem, rather than fixing the problem.”
Project on Government Oversight uncovered the government’s gas royalty underpayments, according to Brian. Currently the nonprofit organization is examining MMS oil royalty collections, Brian said, to determine whether problems exist that are similar to those known from the allegedly underpaid gas royalties. Freedom of Information Act requests have been issued, she added.
Blossom Robinson in the MMS media relations office said the service’s only response to the allegation of retaliating against STRAC whistleblowers would be found in the written announcement of Aug. 15, which did not directly address the matter.