WASHINGTON, D.C. — Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne told a House committee Thursday, Sept. 18, that he might fire employees in the agency that collects oil and gas royalties, a week after the department's inspector general reported ethics abuses there, the New York Times reported.

Kempthorne also said his department would follow all of the recommendations from the inspector general, Earl E. Devaney, to improve the Minerals Management Service. That included more stringent oversight and a stronger ethics program.

"This process will be completed as swiftly as possible, and we will examine the full spectrum of disciplinary actions, including termination," Kempthorne said.

In three reports released earlier this month, Devaney detailed what he called a "culture of ethical failure" that existed at  the Minerals Management Service from 2002 to 2006. The reports alleged that agency employees improperly accepted gifts from oil company employees, arranged sweetheart deals, had sex with subordinates and oil industry contacts, and used illegal drugs.

Devaney told the House Natural Resources Committee that the employees involved in the scandal "had a callous disregard for the ethical rules by which the rest of us are required to play." 

Kempthorne called their actions inexcusable.

But both the secretary and inspector general stressed that they believed 99.9 percent of Interior Department employees were hard-working and ethical. Devaney added that the environment at the royalty agency now "is decidedly different."

Democrats on the committee criticized oil companies named in the scandal for not being more helpful in the investigation and inquired about what was being done to discourage company employees from breaching ethics standards again. Republicans at the hearing agreed that Devaney's findings were serious, but some also said a more pressing matter for the committee was the search for bipartisan solutions to the country's energy problems, the New York Times reported.