From the AP Wire
Interior Secretary Gale Norton Resigns By JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press Writer
1 hour, 50 minutes ago
Interior Secretary Gale Norton resigned Friday after five years in President Bush's Cabinet and at a time when her agency is part of a lobbying scandal over Indian gaming licenses.
In a letter to Bush, Norton said the resignation would be effective at the end of March.
"Now I feel it is time for me to leave this mountain you gave me to climb, catch my breath, then set my sights on new goals to achieve in the private sector," she said in the two-page resignation letter.
Norton, who turns 52 on Saturday, said she and her husband "hope to end up closer to the mountains we love in the West."
Bush called Norton a strong advocate for "the wise use and protection of our nation's natural resources."
"When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, she played a leading role in my administration's efforts to restore badly needed offshore energy production," he said.
The leading Republican and Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee have said that e-mails show that Steven Griles, Norton's former deputy, had a close relationship with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Another one-time Norton associate, Italia Federici, helped Abramoff gain access to Griles in exchange for contributions from Abramoff's Indian tribe clients, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., have said.
A former Colorado attorney general, Norton guided the Bush administration's initiative to open Western government lands to more oil and gas drilling.
As one of the architects of Bush's energy policy, she eased regulations to speed approval of drilling permits, particularly in New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
She also was the administration's biggest advocate for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's North Slope to oil drilling
The first woman ever to head the Interior Department, Norton was a protege of James Watt, the controversial interior secretary during President Ronald Reagan's first term in office. Watt was forced to resign after characterizing a coal commission in terms that were viewed by some as a slur.
Before joining the administration, she was one of the negotiators of a $206 billion national tobacco settlement in a suit by Colorado and 45 other states. She was Colorado's attorney general from 1991 to 1999.
After working for the Agriculture Department for a year, Norton was named an assistant solicitor in the Interior Department in 1985, focusing on conservation and wildlife issues.
In 1996 she sought the Republican Senate nomination in Colorado but was defeated by Wayne Allard, who now holds the seat. Later she co-founded the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a group that has become embroiled in the Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Abramoff pleaded guilty in January to federal felony charges related to congressional influence peddling and defrauding Indian tribes in Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas of millions of dollars.
The tribes were either seeking casino licenses or trying to prevent other tribes from opening competing casinos, and Abramoff on occasion represented both sides on the same issue, charging each hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. The Interior Department oversees Indian affairs, including tribes' gaming activities.
In e-mail exchanges that have been made public since his plea, Abramoff mentioned having an inside track at the department, and his clients donated heavily to the Republican environmental advocacy group Norton helped establish.
Norton met Abramoff in her office at least once and attended a dinner at which he was present, but aides have described the meetings as nonsubstantive.
Much of Norton's work at Interior was satisfying demands from governors and local officials in the West to have more of a role in how the federal government's massive land holdings are used and preserved.
The Interior Department oversees the government's ownership of one-fifth of the nation's land. Norton led the Bush administration's push for "cooperative conservation" — shifting more of the responsibility for land management and recovery of endangered species to states and local communities.
Norton also presided over the nation's park system and oversaw offshore oil and gas leases.
"There never will be a perfect time to leave," Norton said in her resignation letter to Bush. "There is always more work to do.