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Ex-Interior official gets probation

February 4, 2009
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NEW ORLEANS - A judge sentenced a former government employee to probation yesterday for failing to report a $2,500 hunting trip he received from an oil industry contractor while working in an agency that regulates oil and gas operations on leased federal property.

Donald Howard, 59, a former supervisor in the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service, pleaded guilty in November to failing to report the contractor paid for the 2004 trip, according to court records.

His sentencing follows months of scandal at MMS and the Interior Department, where workers have been reprimanded for partying, having sex and using drugs with oil and gas industry representatives, as well as accepting gifts from them.

US District Judge Jay C. Zainey ordered Howard, 59, of Destrehan to pay $3,000 in fines and perform 100 hours of community service as a condition of his yearlong probation.

Zainey said Howard had an otherwise unblemished record while employed with the government, and that prison time was not warranted. The crime, providing a false statement to a federal agency, carried a possible five-year sentence.

"I'd like to apologize to my wife for bringing this all about," Howard said in court before he was sentenced. He was fired from the MMS in January 2007, according to a spokeswoman.

In reports last September, the department's inspector general chronicled a "culture of substance abuse and promiscuity" at an MMS office in Denver from 2002 to 2006. That office is responsible for marketing billions of dollars worth of oil and natural gas that energy companies barter to the government in lieu of cash royalty payments for drilling offshore. In November, more than half a dozen workers were disciplined, and several fired, because of the scandal.

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