Committee drops complaint against Sen. Vitter for threatening official's salary

The Senate Ethics Committee has dismissed allegations that Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) attempted to “bribe” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar by blocking his pay increase until the administration issued more permits for offshore oil exploration.

But the committee, in a letter to Vitter Thursday, called his behavior “inappropriate” and issued new rules that say such actions will be considered in the future “improper conduct reflecting discredibility on the Senate.”

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“While the Committee found that there was no substantial credible evidence that you violated the law or Senate rules, it did conclude that it is inappropriate to condition support for a Secretary’s personal salary increase directly on his or her performance of a specific official act,” Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the chairwoman and vice-chairwoman of the committee, wrote in the letter.

Vitter stood behind his effort to block the salary increase Friday.

“The bipartisan committee completely dismissed this complaint today. I'm glad that I killed Ken Salazar's salary increase — he has completely failed us on energy policy. And I'll absolutely place a hold on any raise for him in the future,” he said in a statement.

Vitter vowed last year to block legislation to raise the Interior secretary's salary by $19,600 until the Interior Department issued six permits for new deepwater exploratory wells in the Gulf of Mexico every month.

Salazar said last May that Vitter’s pledge amounted to “attempted coercion.” At Salazar’s request, the Senate eventually dropped the legislation, which would have increased the Interior secretary’s salary to the level of other Cabinet secretaries.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group, filed the complaint with the Ethics Committee in June, alleging that Vitter violated federal bribery laws.

“Our country’s criminal laws apply to everyone, including senators,” CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said in the June letter. “There is no exception to the bribery law allowing a senator to influence a department secretary’s official acts by withholding compensation.”

But the Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint this week, while criticizing Vitter’s actions. By blocking the salary increase until he issued more offshore exploration permits, Vitter put Salazar in a “precarious and potentially untenable position,” Boxer and Isakson wrote in the letter.

The senators noted that it’s common for lawmakers to block nominations for policy reasons. But they said Vitter’s attempt to block the salary increase was “unprecedented.”

“Had Secretary Salazar complied with this request, it would have appeared that this decision was made because of his personal interests, and not the public interest,” the senators said.

The salary increase bill was aimed at making Salazar’s pay equal to that of other Cabinet officials.

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.