WASHINGTON - The Justice Department is investigating whether a former secretary of the interior, Gale A. Norton, violated the law by granting valuable leases to Royal Dutch Shell around the time she was considering going to work for the company after she left office, officials said Thursday.
The officials said investigators had recently turned up information suggesting that Ms. Norton had had discussions while in office with Royal Dutch Shell about future career opportunities. In early 2006, Ms. Norton's department awarded three tracts in Colorado to a Shell subsidiary for shale exploration. In December 2006, she joined Shell as the company's general counsel in the United States for unconventional oils, a company spokeswoman said.
The existence of a federal criminal investigation was first reported Thursday by The Los Angeles Times.
Ms. Norton, 55, was President George W. Bush's first interior secretary. In that job, she was an ally of Vice President Dick Cheney in the administration's general approach of opening up more federal lands for energy exploration.
The possibility that Ms. Norton violated the law by seeking employment with a company while she was a federal official in a position to benefit the company stemmed from an investigation of many months by the Interior Department's inspector general. The officials who confirmed the investigation did so on the condition of anonymity, citing the custom to decline to speak publicly on criminal investigations in progress.
Kelly C. op de Weegh, a Shell spokeswoman, said: "We are aware of an investigation. However, we are not in a position to comment." Ms. op de Weegh said Ms. Norton, who works in the company's Denver offices, would not comment as well.
For more than a year, Interior Department investigators have been looking into Ms. Norton's dealings with Shell. They interviewed dozens of department officials about the program to lease tracts for shale exploration.
The officials from the office of inspector general recently turned over their findings to the Justice Department.
The Colorado tracts are part of a program to allow energy companies to experiment with methods of extracting oil from shale, a rocklike substance common in the western United States.