Interior Department launches investigation into Zinke’s reported threats over health care votes

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The Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has launched a “preliminary investigation” over reports that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke threatened to pull funding from Alaskan energy projects if Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Dan Sullivan (R-AK) didn’t vote in support of President Donald Trump’s health care proposal.

“The OIG is undertaking a preliminary investigation into this matter,” Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said in a letter sent to two House Democrats on Thursday. “We will advise you about what further action the results of this inquiry lead the OIG to take.”

Last week, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), asked both the Interior’s OIG and the Government Accountability Office to investigate Zinke’s actions.

“Secretary Zinke’s willingness to deliver these threats speaks volumes about his ethical standards and demonstrates that Interior’s policy positions are up for political grabs, rather than based on science or the public interest,” Grijalva said in a statement.

According to a report by Alaska Dispatch News’ Erica Martinson — later confirmed by E&E News — Zinke called Murkowski and Sullivan following Murkowski’s no vote against proceeding with debate on health care legislation. During the call, Zinke told the senators that Murkowski’s no vote had put the state’s energy future in jeopardy.

“I’m not going to go into the details, but I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop,” Sullivan said of the call at the time.

The call came hours after Trump tweeted an admonishment of Murkowski, accusing the senior senator of letting down “the Republicans, and our country.”

Following the call, Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, postponed confirmation votes for several Interior nominees.

Those votes have since been placed back on the schedule, with five nominees for senior Interior and Energy posts being moved through to the floor on Thursday. That same day, Zinke posted a picture to Twitter of he and Murkowski, calling her a “friend.”

Despite eventually voting against the Senate Republican’s health care plan — one of only three Republican Senators to do so — Murkowski’s views on energy and the environment are very much in line with the Trump administration’s agenda. Both Murkowski and the Trump administration want to see more land in Alaska opened to oil and gas drilling, including off-shore and wilderness areas. Murkowski has also long pushed for federal help in constructing a road through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, to connect villages to towns that right now are only accessible via water or air. Federal authorities have been hesitant to construct the road, arguing that it would fragment critical habitat in the refuge; the Trump administration, however, could be friendlier to the proposal.

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