Williams: Gifts to New Mexico BLM official ‘contrary to policyÂ’

Williams says it is looking into an apparent breach of corporate policy involving reported gifts to a former Bureau of Land Management official in New Mexico.

An investigative report by the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General found that Steven Henke, former BLM district manager in Farmington, N.M., misused BLM travel funds, received prohibited gifts from Williams and Merrion Oil & Gas and failed to list them on annual financial disclosure reports. However, the investigation found no evidence that Henke took actions benefiting the companies in return.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico declined to prosecute. Henke retired May 21, 11 days after BLM leadership in the state received preliminary findings on Henke’s misconduct, and the case was closed. He later was named president of the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association, an industry group.

While with the BLM, Henke oversaw the San Juan Basin, the largest onshore minerals production area in the country. Williams is one of the top five producers in the basin and is the largest producer of natural gas in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin.

Federal ethics rules bar government employees from receiving gifts of more than $20 per occasion or $50 per year from entities that do business with an employee’s agency or have interests possibly affected by the employee’s duties.

In 2007, a Williams employee invited Henke to attend the PGA Championship in Tulsa, Okla., as the company’s guest, and Williams paid for Henke’s lodging and some meals, the investigation found. Henke told investigators that while he also made the trip to meet with Williams officials at their Tulsa headquarters to go over drilling plans, the tournament was the primary reason for going, and in retrospect he probably shouldn’t have charged the government approximately $1,000 in transportation and per-diem expenses.

The investigation also found Henke obtained about $8,000 from Williams the same year in donations for a relative’s baseball teams. In 2009, Henke received tickets for two days at the Masters Golf Tournament from Williams, and the company only let him reimburse it for the company’s actual cost of $70, although the tickets’ market value was $500 a day.

Williams said in a prepared statement from general counsel Jim Bender, “Williams has a policy that directs strict adherence to rules regarding gifts to government officials and, as well, avoidance of the appearance of impropriety. It appears this conduct was contrary to our policy. We will investigate these incidents and the general effectiveness of our policy.”

Steven Hall, a BLM spokesman in Colorado, said the agency has had no instances or allegations of improper acceptance of gifts in Colorado.

The investigation also found Henke once expedited processing of drilling permits for Merrion Oil & Gas Co., possibly saving the company about $10,000 a day. Merrion provided a relative of Henke with a three-month internship, but Henke denied a connection and said he would have provided the same assistance to any company.

The Farmington Daily Times reported this week the investigation is being cited in support of arguments of environmental groups that Henke shouldn’t be allowed to be immediately lobbying the BLM on behalf of the industry. But the newspaper said the BLM indicated there is not an issue because Henke’s new employer has no direct financial dealings with the agency.


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