Salazar navigates ethical limits in new role

During the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill, the law firm WilmerHale was winning concessions for BP during White House talks over a compensation fund, about the same time that then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar famously declared the Obama administration would keep a boot on the neck of the British oil giant.

Three years later, Salazar has now joined the prominent firm, where he will focus on strategic counseling as well as energy, natural resources and North American issues in a brand new Denver office.

But Salazar won’t touch any of the law firm’s work with BP — and other energy clients may also be off limits.

“I’m permanently walled off from any BP work and money, now and forever,” Salazar said during an interview. “That’s an arrangement I made. That’s in place with the firm.”

WilmerHale has represented BP since 2005. But WilmerHale’s work for BP as Congress and federal agencies investigated the Deepwater Horizon disaster has drawn fresh attention in the ongoing litigation over the oil spill. On April 30, a federal judge ordered the oil company to turn over e-mails with its lawyers discussing the rate of oil flowing from the failed Gulf well, after rejecting BP’s claims that the documents were protected by attorney-client privilege. BP initially said as few as 1,000 barrels of oil were gushing into the Gulf each day, even though prosecutors say the company’s internal estimates put the potential flow rate much higher.

Beyond BP, Salazar acknowledged that “a number of walls may have to be erected” to keep him separated from other potential conflicts of interest. The bright line under federal ethics rules is that Salazar can’t be involved in matters in which he was personally and substantially involved at the Interior Department. Fundamentally, former federal employees are barred from representing someone before the government on a case, contractual matter or any similar proceeding in which they participated personally and substantially while employed by the U.S.

Salazar isn’t alone in having to navigate ethical issues as a former cabinet secretary moving to the private sector.

Former Interior Secretary Gale Norton drew headlines — and a federal investigation — when she was hired by Shell Oil Co. in December 2007, not long after the department sold potentially lucrative oil shale leases to the company (once Norton had left). Norton was later cleared of allegations that she was involved in giving Shell preferential treatment while negotiating employment with the company.

Before Salazar left the Obama administration in April, he spent time with the Interior Department’s lawyers and ethics officers to review potential conflicts of interest and prohibited areas, and he will be able to call on the government’s ethics specialists to help sort out any future questions. Salazar also said he has reviewed WilmerHale’s “stringent ethics policy” to ensure “that we maintain the integrity of the firm and my integrity as well.”

At the Interior Department, Salazar presided over decisions on energy development on federal lands and waters, as well as conservation and other uses of the same territories. While oil was still gushing from BP’s failed Macondo well, Salazar imposed a moratorium on most deep-water exploration that lasted five months. Under his watch, Shell launched a new era of oil exploration in the Arctic, even as Salazar’s Interior Department approved the nation’s first major renewable power installations on federal lands.

Now at WilmerHale, Salazar will draw on his background working on Native American and energy issues, as well as his deep Colorado roots. He spent four years representing the state in the U.S. Senate, after a five-year stint as Colorado’s attorney general and a seven-year turn heading its natural resources department. He also practiced law for 11 years at two Denver firms.

Salazar said he is eager to draw on his natural resources and energy expertise. “That’s where I spent a huge amount of my time as a practicing lawyer,” he said, “and also as … the attorney general.”

“I’m excited to work in that arena, both nationally and internationally,” Salazar added. “As I do, there will be matters I can’t work on, matters I was personally and substantially involved in at Interior, but that’s an area where I am an expert.”