GOP threatens ethics probe over Markey letter

GOP lawmakers may charge Democrat Rep. Ed Markey (Mass.) with violating House ethics rules for "intimidating a witness" who testified before his committee, officials tell The Hill.

House GOP leaders and members of the Energy and Commerce Committee have not “ruled out the option” of forcing a vote in the lower chamber to investigate the possible ethics violations, accusing the senior Democrat “retaliating and bullying” a witness who appeared last Tuesday before Markey’s subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, where the CEO of a major energy company told members that the White House-backed cap-and-trade bill would do nothing to reduce carbon emissions while driving up energy costs.

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Republicans indicated that they would attempt to avoid calling for an ethics investigation if Democrats were able to satisfy their concerns spelled out in a letter sent to Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on Friday afternoon.

In that letter, they explained their complaint that while David L. Sokol, CEO of MidAmerican Energy Holding Co. (of which Warren Buffett is the largest stakeholder), told Markey’s subcommittee panel that his cap-and-trade legislation would be ineffective and expensive, the chairman sent a formal request to regulators for an investigation into past statements made by Sokol and Buffett and actions taken by the company.

“Mr. Sokol and his company became the focus of apparent intimidation when Chairman Markey by letter dated the day of the hearing, asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to answer specific questions about investment and transmission-related activist of MidAmerican Energy and its partner, investor Warren Buffett,” they wrote in the letter signed by all GOP members of the committee.

They demanded that the top Democrat “take whatever actions necessary to make sure that witnesses are not “subjected to sanction, retribution and vengeance simply because the facts and opinions they offer do not square with those of the Committee's members."

As of Saturday morning, Markey’s office had not responded to a request for comment.

Sokol told the committee that the Democrat’s cap-and-trade bill’s "trading mechanism will impose a huge and unacceptable double cost on customers: first to pay for emission allowances, which will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one ounce, and then for the construction of new low- and zero-carbon power plants and other actions that will actually do the job of reducing these emissions.”

Republican lawmakers contend that Markey’s letter to FERC was an example of a wider effort on the part of Democrats to intimidate individuals who have different viewpoints than “what the Majority wants to hear,” citing reports that the Senate Finance Committee Chairman “just this week … instructed Democrat health care lobbyists not to meet with Republicans.”

“There’s systematic intimidation going on, and bullying of individuals by a party that preaches tolerance and it must stop," Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.) told The Hill.

On Friday morning Markey disputed the GOP claims of intimidation and publicly apologized for the unfortunate timing of sending a letter to FERC, saying it had nothing to do with the carbon emissions bill on which Sokol was testifying.

“I would never seek to intimidate or retaliate against a person from having to come in and having to testify before this subcommittee,” Markey said at his subcommittee hearing on reviewing the nation’s public utility transmission policies.

Markey also said that he had talked to Sokol, who accused the chairman of intimidation, according to reports in the Omaha-World Tribune.

Republicans in attendance for Markey’s apology said that they were not satisfied with his “mea culpa.”

But Markey was emphatic that the letter to FERC was in the works days before Democrats knew that the minority party had booked Sokol as their witness for Tuesday’s hearing.

Republicans who learned of the letter were furious Wednesday.  Markey said that he jumped into action that night after they confronted him about the request by sending a follow-up note to FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff clarifying that he wanted "generic" information about companies similar to MidAmerican energy that were going to invest in improving the nation's energy distribution mechanism after Congress deregulated the system in 2005.

But his colleagues on the other side of the aisle were not satisfied. Therefore minority members requested a behind-closed-doors sit-down with Waxman and Markey to air their grievances. If the chairman agrees to that meeting and Republicans still aren't satisfied with the answers they hear, then they may pursue filing the privileged resolution.

Buyer told The Hill to “stay tuned.”