Pallone, Grijalva Highlight Lack of Administration Transparency and Oversight Compliance as Zinke Skates on Threats to Senators
Energy and Commerce Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) and Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) today highlighted the Trump administration’s total lack of compliance with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Department of Interior (DOI) Office of Inspector General (OIG) in the matter of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s reported threats to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) during a 2017 phone conversation based on her vote on a Republican bill to destroy the Affordable Care Act. GAO released a letter today explaining that it cannot issue a legal opinion on Zinke’s threats not because they did not occur or because no laws were violated, but because DOI’s refusal to share information with GAO made rendering a legal opinion impossible.
Grijalva and Pallone initially requested a DOI OIG investigation of Zinke’s actions on July 27, 2017, based on a report in the Anchorage Daily News the previous day indicating that Zinke had threatened Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) over Murkowski’s vote on health care legislation. That effort was stymied by Murkowski and Sullivan’s refusal to discuss the matter with OIG staff, and the watchdog ultimately decided it could render no findings on potential violations or appropriate remedies.
Grijalva and Pallone also requested a GAO legal opinion on whether Zinke had violated legal limits on official conduct. On March 27, DOI Principal Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani sent a short letter to GAO defiantly refusing to substantively discuss the legal issues raised by Zinke’s threats.
Today GAO announced that it could not publish a legal opinion on Zinke’s behavior based on DOI’s refusal to give GAO the information it sought. Today’s letter reads in part:
Following the Interior OIG’s letter, consistent with our practice for legal opinions, we requested information from Interior regarding the factual circumstances of this matter, as well as its legal views as to whether the Secretary’s actions complied with appropriations laws, including the anti-lobbying provision in section 715 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017. [. . .] In his response to our request, the Principal Deputy Solicitor confirmed only that the Secretary spoke by telephone with the Senators. The Principal Deputy Solicitor declined to provide further details about what was said.
“It’s unacceptable that the Trump administration prevented GAO from completing its independent investigation into Interior Secretary Zinke’s alleged threatening of Alaska’s senators over their votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act,” Pallone said. “Unfortunately, this is what happens when the Republican Congress refuses to conduct oversight – the Trump administration gets away with stonewalling an independent investigation.”
Grijalva said that today’s GAO announcement, far from exonerating Secretary Zinke, shows that Republicans’ lack of oversight of Trump’s abuses of power has increased his administration’s feelings of impunity.
“Secretary Zinke seems to think he can threaten anyone he wants as long as Republicans cover for him,” Grijalva said. “House and Senate Republicans have done absolutely nothing to hold this administration accountable even as its leaders drown in scandal and publicly embarrassing behavior. When the Trump officials at the Interior Department decide they don’t have to answer questions from an independent watchdog, then it’s time for Congress to act, and if Republican leaders won’t do it, we need new ones.”
The GAO letter is available HERE.