05.27.10

The Government's Porn Problem

Elizabeth Birnbaum left her oil oversight job after a report found porn and meth problems in her shop. We all indulge—but those paid to prevent disasters should cool it.

The people who get paid to pretend they understand politics were in a tizzy last week, trying to rationalize the latest electoral outbursts. Mark Critz won PA-12 because things are OK for Democrats! Joe Sestak beat Arlen Specter because blue-collar swing voters hate President Obama! Rand Paul won his Senate primary because Kentuckians are inbreeds, just like on Justified!

There is, however, a unified field theory that accommodates all of the electoral results we’ve seen these last several months. Her name is Elizabeth Birnbaum.

Miss Birnbaum was, until Thursday morning, director of the Minerals Management Service. The MMS is a boring, and normally obscure, unit of the Department of the Interior. Unluckily for Birnbaum, the MMS’s portfolio includes keeping tabs on the safety of offshore oil platforms.

When you flake out to Sasha Grey while doing these jobs, bad things can happen. Like the dumping of 22 million gallons of oil off the coast of Louisiana. Or the destruction of $14 trillion of American wealth.

To make matters worse for her, three days ago the inspector general’s office released a report about an MMS office in Louisiana where workers were doing crystal meth and surfing for porn on their work computers. All while taking gifts on the side from the companies they were overseeing.

I can’t defend the gift-taking. Several inspectors accepted tickets and a private plane ride to the Peach Bowl. One of them brought his daughter—it must have been “Take Your Daughter to Graft Day.” But the IG’s report isn’t as bad as the headlines would have you believe.

Big Fat Story: Meet the Faces of the Oil Spill After all, only two MMS employees were doing drugs and it’s not like they were pounding crack or acid. Just a little coke and meth. And in any case, they both pinky-swear that they never did drugs while they were actually on the job. As for the work porn, the investigation period covered four years, during which there were only 314 instances of porny emails and videos found on the computers of 13 employees. And the IG refuses to divulge any of the relevant details: Are we talking Cinemax Presents: Naughty Beach House 11—or Shemale Scheiss Überrashung?

Whatever the case, 314 NSFW violations from 13 employees over the course of four years seems like a pretty low porn-to-work-hour ratio. I watched the Kendra trailer three times this morning. If every worker in the country was tagged each time he clicked on a Miranda Kerr nip-slip, the tally would be in the billions.

And besides, the MMS folks weren’t any worse than the boys at the SEC.

You’ll recall that the SEC had a similar problem last month when it was revealed that 31 senior staffers at the agency—some of them making more than $200,000 a year—spent work time spelunking for porn. Lots of it. One senior attorney went eight hours a day downloading porn on his work computer. When he ran out of space on his hard drive, he started burning it to CDs and DVDs. (The real punch line is that he filed these disks away in his office.) Another employee, this one an accountant, was blocked from trying to access porn sites 16,000 times in a single month by an office firewall. He eventually learned to get around the Puritanical government censorship by using Google Image searches. (The key is to turn the SafeSearch filter off. It’s under the Advanced Search menu.)

The SEC boys make the mopes in Louisiana look like Mormons. But neither one is materially worse than any subset of office drones in any other workplace in the country.

(I, for one, blame the Internet. The world wide webzone is an amazing tool for sharing knowledge across time and space. But what did we think was going to happen when we put a TV set with an infinite number of channels on every desk in every office in America?)

The problem isn’t that these workers behaved particularly badly. It’s that they behaved like they worked at Initech or Acme Widgets or Faber College. Because even though most of us have dreary, meaningless jobs, there are a handful of gigs which carry with them actual, real-world consequences. When you flake out to Sasha Grey while doing these jobs, bad things can happen. Like the dumping of 22 million gallons of oil off the coast of Louisiana. Or the destruction of $14 trillion of American wealth.

The people at MMS and the SEC—and ultimately in Congress—are paid to prevent disasters from happening. They’re paid to be diligent in ways most of us don’t have to be. And they’re paid by us.

It’s not fair that government workers can’t goof off the way we do when we’re not filing our TPS reports. But as Governor Chris Christie told a whiny schoolteacher earlier this week, if you don’t like it, you can always work somewhere else.

And come November, lots of politicians are going to be working elsewhere. Just like Elizabeth Birnbaum.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.