Lawmakers scold Trump official over Pacific island trust fund

Lawmakers scold Trump official over Pacific island trust fund
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Lawmakers on Tuesday scolded an Interior Department official over a decision to hand over a trust fund to former residents of the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick McConnell: Senate to confirm Kavanaugh by Oct. 1 MORE (R-Alaska) said Congress had not been notified about the decision before the administration acted.

“We learned about this letter and this reversal of decades-long practice by way of a press release — which is not a good way to work through the responsibilities that we have with Congress,” Murkowski told Doug Domenech, assistant secretary of insular areas at the Interior Department, at a hearing of her committee.

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"Is there some reason we were not notified in advance?" she asked. "Is there some reason that the department just unilaterally decided that we were out of the picture here?”

Domenech apologized to Murkowski and the other lawmakers, saying the agency did not know the committee had an “interest in this particular issue.”

But the answer did little to assuage lawmakers.

“It’s just been a matter of fact that every year, there is a heads up,” Murkowski said. “That was just how it’s been handled until it was not.”

At issue is the Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund which is for helping and resettling former residents of the Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific who were forced from their homes because of nuclear weapons testing by the United States during the Cold War.

Since the fund was created in the 1980s, the Department of the Interior held veto power over how much island leaders could withdraw from the fund annually.

In November, however, the Trump administration handed full decisionmaking powers over the then-$59 million trust to the Bikinians.

That decision angered lawmakers, including Murkowski, who said she only learned about it from the department's press release.

Lawmakers from both parties criticized Interior's handling of the matter.

“I get the sense that [the] administration can’t wait to wash their hands of that responsibility,” said Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichCNN congressional correspondent talks about her early love of trolls and family Overnight Energy: DNC to reject fossil fuel donations | Regulators see no security risk in coal plant closures | Senate committee rejects Trump EPA, Interior budgets Energy commission sees no national security risk from coal plant closures MORE (D-N.M.).

Murkowski and other lawmakers were alarmed when the island's leaders reportedly withdrew $11 million from the fund after the recent change. Interior usually budgeted $5 million to $8 million, according to The Washington Post.

Murkowski has proposed legislation that would limit how much island leaders can pull from the trust fund each year to 5 percent of the fund's market value.