Column: White House politicking at DOI

"In January 2002, at a retreat in West Virginia, Karl Rove gave a PowerPoint presentation to at least 50 managers at the Department of the Interior to discuss polling data, and emphasized the importance of getting Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican, reelected that year.

The way to get Smith reelected to another term, Rove reportedly told the Interior Department officials, would come via the agency's support of a highly controversial measure: diverting water from the Klamath River Basin to farms in the area that were experiencing unusually dry conditions, thereby supporting the GOP's agricultural base.

Details of Rove's involvement in influencing the Interior Department to reverse its policies with regard to the Klamath River basin have been previously reported. But questions about why a political operative like Rove was influencing agricultural and environmental policy decisions, possibly in violation of the law, and whether he pressured cabinet officials to reverse policy to get Republicans reelected were raised again last month during a sworn deposition Rove's former executive assistant, Susan Ralston, gave to Congressional investigators probing Rove's role in the US attorney scandal and his and other White House officials connections with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

A transcript of Ralston's deposition was released on Monday by Congressman Henry Waxman, the Democratic chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

According to Congressional investigators Rove used the PowerPoint presentation at the West Virginia retreat to solicit Republican donors. But Rove's priority was to ensure that farmers in Oregon got the additional water they wanted from the Klamath River, so Senator Smith would be reelected. President Bush lost Oregon by less than one percent in the 2000 presidential election to Al Gore, according to polling results from the Associated Press.

Laying the groundwork to get Smith reelected, Rove set up a cabinet-level task force on Klamath River issues to specifically study whether diverting water from Klamath River to farmers would hurt the endangered Coho salmon population. The task force Rove set up gave the impression that the administration was going to take an unbiased look at the situation.

According to Michael Kelly, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, that wasn't the case. Kelly spoke out publicly in 2003 alleging that he was subjected to political pressure and ordered to ignore scientific evidence that said the plan would likely kill off tens of thousands of Coho salmon, and to support the Klamath River low-water plan Rove wanted enacted to help farmers, who Rove saw as a crucial part of the Republican constituency in the state."

Get the Story:
Rove Aide Details Broad Political Abuses (Scoop 6/21)

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Documents:
Press Release | Report | Deposition | Errata

Related Stories:
Former Abramoff aide talks with House committee (6/19)
DOI to probe White House interference on Klamath (9/8)
McCaleb: White House had 'chilling effect' on BIA (07/30)