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Sources: Interior Secretary to Resign
By JOHN HEILPRIN, Associated Press Writer

Friday, March 10, 2006

(03-10) 10:15 PST WASHINGTON, (AP) --

Interior Secretary Gale Norton is resigning after five years in President Bush's Cabinet, The Associated Press has learned.

Norton, a former Colorado attorney general who guided the Bush administration's initiative to open Western government lands to more oil and gas drilling, planned to announce her decision Friday, a senior government official and another source familiar with her decision told the AP.

Both spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they did not want to upstage an announcement from the White House.

Norton told associates she wanted to return to private life in Colorado, the source said.

One of the architects of Bush's energy policy, Norton 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.

Norton, who turns 52 on Saturday, is the first woman ever to head the Interior Department.

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.

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.

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 cofounded the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy, a group that has become embroiled in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

The leading Republican and Democrat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee have said that e-mails uncovered by the committee show that Steven Griles, Norton's former deputy, had a close relationship with Abramoff.

Another onetime 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.

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