WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 — A federal jury in Denver agreed Tuesday with a former top auditor for the Interior Department that the Kerr-McGee Corporation had cheated the government out of millions of dollars in royalties on oil it produced in publicly owned coastal waters.
The decision, reached by the jury after deliberations of about four hours, is a vindication for the auditor, Bobby L. Maxwell. He became a whistle-blower and sued Kerr-McGee as a private citizen after top officials at the Interior Department ordered him to drop his audit findings.
It is also a potentially big embarrassment for the Interior Department, which dismissed Mr. Maxwell in a “reorganization” and which had insisted that his case against Kerr-McGee had no merit.
The Minerals Management Service, an Interior Department agency that collects more than $10 billion a year in royalties on oil and gas pumped on federal territory, is now the subject of numerous investigations by Congress, as well as its own inspector general, over its enforcement of royalty rules.