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Salazar orders ethics probe into offshore agency

US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today ordered an investigation into whether the rig involved in the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was properly monitored by the Minerals Management Service.

The investigation follows a report citing workers from the MMS accepting gifts, viewing pornography and possibly allowing oil workers to fill out their own inspection reports.

The report found it was commonplace before 2007 for MMS employees at a Lake Charles, Louisiana office to receive gifts including sporting event tickets and hunting trips from energy companies, Reuters reported.

"This deeply disturbing report is further evidence of the cozy relationship between some elements of MMS and the oil and gas industry," Salazar said in a statement.

The Interior Department has been criticised in recent weeks for not doing enough to prevent the explosion on Transocean's Deepwater Horizon rig leased by BP, which led to a ruptured undersea well that is spewing thousands of barrels oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico.

Salazar said he has asked the agency's acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, to look into whether MMS employees adequately inspected and enforced standards on the Deepwater Horizon rig. He also asked the inspector to determine if the improper behavior outlined in the report has continued since he took office at the department.

"Obviously, we're all oil industry," Lake Charles District Manager Larry Williamson said in the report. "Almost all of our inspectors have worked for oil companies out on these same platforms. Some of these people, they've been friends with all their life."

In addition to accepting gifts, the report said a confidential industry source accused some MMS inspectors of allowing energy company workers to fill out their own inspection forms for their platforms. Investigators however could not determine if any of the files they reviewed were fraudulent.

Investigators also said they found numerous instances of pornography and inappropriate material on employee email accounts.

Both Kendall and Salazar are set to testify before the House Natural Resource committee tomorrow on the oil spill.

"It's past time for MMS to stop acting as a farm team for the industry -- the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion is proof that this isn't just a game," House Natural Resources committee chairman Nick Rahall said in response to the report.

An inspector general report released in 2008 found that MMS employees at another office received gifts, as well as used illegal drugs and had sex with workers from the oil companies they were supposed to oversee.

In response to this scandal, Salazar instituted new ethics rules after he took the helm of the department last year.