A TAXPAYER-SUBSIDIZED CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE…. This criminal investigation probably isn’t getting quite as much attention as it deserves.

The Justice Department is investigating whether former Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton illegally used her position to benefit Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the company that later hired her, according to officials in federal law enforcement and the Interior Department.

The criminal investigation centers on the Interior Department’s 2006 decision to award three lucrative oil shale leases on federal land in Colorado to a Shell subsidiary. Over the years it would take to extract the oil, according to calculations from Shell and a Rand Corp. expert, the deal could net the company hundreds of billions of dollars.

The investigation’s main focus is whether Norton violated a law that prohibits federal employees from discussing employment with a company if they are involved in dealings with the government that could benefit the firm, law enforcement and Interior officials said.

They said investigators also were trying to determine if Norton broke a broader federal “denial of honest services” law, which says a government official can be prosecuted for violating the public trust by, for example, steering government business to favored firms or friends.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General began the investigation during the waning months of the George W. Bush administration and more recently made a formal criminal referral to the Justice Department. Norton is the first Bush official at the Cabinet secretary level to be the subject of a formal political corruption investigation.

That emphasis on the first criminal investigation of a Bush official at the “Cabinet secretary level” is important, because there have been criminal probes of all kinds of Bush administration officials, just not usually this high-ranking.

But Norton’s alleged crimes are of particular interest given what we know about her cabinet agency in the Bush era. As Tim Dickinson recently explained, “Under Bush, the Interior Department became a lawless bureaucracy that actively worked to enrich the nation’s most powerful energy interests. Top-level officials secretly allowed oil companies to keep billions in royalties owed to taxpayers, opened up 26 million acres of federal land to oil and gas drilling, denied wilderness protection to another 220 million acres, rewrote scientific reports to eliminate safeguards for endangered species, and even snorted coke and had sex with the very oil interests they were supposed to be regulating.”

That’s not hyperbole; it’s literally true. Indeed, Dickinson’s description is soft-pedaling what was a spectacular national embarrassment.

Noting this, Atrios added, “Look over there! ACORN!”

Right. For all the uproar about ACORN, under Bush’s leadership, the U.S. Interior Department was effectively a taxpayer-subsidized criminal enterprise. Why do you suppose conservatives consider this irrelevant, while ACORN is a national scandal?

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.