Salazar alleges ‘coercion’ from Vitter on drilling, asks Senate to nix pay-raise bill

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is urging Senate leaders to set aside legislation to increase his salary, arguing that Sen. David Vitter’s (R-La.) threat to block the bill unless Salazar speeds up oil drilling permits amounts to “attempted coercion.”

Salazar’s request — spelled out in a Tuesday letter obtained by The Hill — comes as the Democratic leadership attacks Vitter’s action by suggesting it could amount to bribery.

"This crosses the line. The bribery statute makes it a crime to offer anything of value to a public official to influence an official act,” a Democratic leadership aide told The Hill.

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“Vitter is basically saying, 'Do what I say and I'll stop blocking this routine pay equalization measure for you.' That sure sounds like bribery to me. It’s wrong; it's unethical; it's probably illegal."

Salazar’s letter and the Democratic aide’s statement come a day after Vitter vowed to block legislation to raise the Interior secretary's salary until the Interior Department issues six permits for new deepwater exploratory wells in the Gulf of Mexico every month.

“[A] member of the Senate has taken the position, in writing, that his vote on the issue is dependent upon the outcome of his attempted coercion of public acts here at the department,” Salazar, a Democratic senator from Colorado before his confirmation, said in the letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“That position is wrong, and it must be made perfectly clear that his attempt cannot and will not affect the execution of the solemn legal responsibilities that the department undertakes on behalf of the American people," the letter says.

Reid offered a bill last week to raise Salazar’s salary by $19,600 so that it is comparable with other Cabinet secretaries'.

Since Salazar voted to raise the Interior secretary’s salary during his time as a senator, he was obligated under a clause in the Constitution to accept the pre-raise pay level when he left the Senate to take over as the head of the department.

He became eligible for the higher pay level in January, when his Senate term would have come to an end. Salazar currently makes $180,100 a year.

But Vitter blocked a unanimous consent agreement offered by Reid last week to bring up the bill. And he stressed Monday that he would continue to block an agreement on the legislation.

“Given the completely unsatisfactory pace of your department’s issuance of new deepwater exploratory permits in the Gulf, I cannot possibly give my assent,” Vitter said in a letter to Salazar.

Interior’s offshore drilling arm — the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement — has issued 14 deepwater permits in the months since the administration lifted its post-oil-spill moratorium on drilling in the Gulf. All but one of those permits have been for projects that were halted in the aftermath of last year’s Gulf oil spill.

“I appreciate the good-faith effort of members of the Senate to make the salary of the Interior secretary equal to that of other members of the Cabinet,” Salazar said in the letter. “However, I respectfully request that you set aside any effort to address this inequity.”

Vitter said Tuesday he is pleased that Salazar is calling on lawmakers to drop the salary bill.

“It was truly offensive to Gulf energy workers who are struggling under his policies," Vitter said in a statement to The Hill. "Now I hope he starts earning what he already makes and properly issues new permits for much-needed drilling in the Gulf."

— Ben Geman contributed to this story.

— This story was updated at 6:54 p.m.


Here is the full letter:

May 24, 2011

Honorable Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Honorable Mitch McConnell
Senate Minority Leader
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Leader Reid and Senator McConnell:

I appreciate the good faith effort of Members of the Senate to make the salary of the Interior Secretary equal to that of other members of the Cabinet. However, I respectfully request that you set aside any effort to address this inequity.

At the Department of the Interior, our oversight and regulation of offshore energy production is – and will continue to be – guided by principles of integrity, the public interest, and much-needed safety and environmental standards. The public deserves nothing less.

These legal and ethical principles have always, and will always, guide me in all my work on behalf of the Department of the Interior. Yet, as the Senate has considered the disparity in Cabinet salaries relating to the Emoluments Clause, a Member of the Senate has taken the position, in writing, that his vote on the issue is dependent upon the outcome of his attempted coercion of public acts here at the Department. That position is wrong, and it must be made perfectly clear that his attempt cannot and will not affect the execution of the solemn legal responsibilities that the Department undertakes on behalf of the American people.

Sincerely,

Ken Salazar