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Second Obama cabinet official faces contempt of Congress charge

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Joel Gehrke

Could a second Obama cabinet member be found in contempt of Congress? The possibility arose on Friday when House investigators  escalated their efforts to make Interior Secretary Ken Salazar comply with a subpoena pertaining to the drilling moratorium that he imposed after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

After the spill, Salazar had released a report recommending a moratorium — a report protested by the very group of experts that it cited, who said their opinions were misrepresented in order to justify the moratorium.

“For more than three months, the [Interior] Department has flouted a duly authorized and issued Congressional subpoena for documents that would shed light on these actions, which led to thousands of lost jobs and decreased American energy production in the Gulf of Mexico,”  House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., wrote in a letter to Salazar on Friday. “The Department’s failure to respond to the request to schedule interviews calls into question the sincerity of its recent statements about wanting to reach a mutually agreeable accommodation of the Committee’s oversight interest into this matter.”

Hastings said Salazar must arrange for several Interior Department officials who worked on the report to interview with the Natural Resources Committee by the week of July 16. Failing that, Hastings told Salazar that his committee “is left with no choice other than to continue to pursue compliance with the subpoena, as well as seek necessary information directly from the officials who were most involved in interacting with the peer reviewers and drafting and editing the Drilling Moratorium Report.”

A contempt of Congress charge for Salazar is not “off the table” if he does not comply, committee spokesman Spencer Pederson told USA Today. Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder became the first cabinet member in American history to be cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to produce documents pertaining to Operation Fast and Furious.

Salazar provoked a contempt finding by a federal district court in 2010, for imposing the drilling moratorium despite a federal judge’s preliminary injunction against it. “Such dismissive conduct, viewed in tandem with the re-imposition of a second blanket and substantively identical moratorium, and in light of the national importance of this case, provide this court with clear and convincing evidence of the government’s contempt,” U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman ruled.

The committee’s investigation stems from seven experts who protested the Drilling Moratorium Report released by Salazar, in coordination with the White House, that made it appear that the experts had peer-reviewed and supported the moratorium (which they had not actually reviewed).

“What was in the report at the time it was reviewed was quite a bit different in its impact to what there is now,” oil expert Ken Arnold told Fox News in 2010. “So we wanted to distance ourselves from that recommendation.”

An internal investigation found that the changes came in the final editing process, after the Interior Department sent a draft of the report to the White House.

“The version that the White House returned to DOI had revised and re-ordered the language in the Executive Summary, placing the peer review language immediately following the moratorium recommendation,” Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall concluded in a November 2010 report. “This caused the distinction between the Secretary’s moratorium recommendation – which had not been peer reviewed – and the safety recommendations contained in the 30-Day Report – which had been peer reviewed – to become effectively lost.”

The inspector general concluded that Salazar had not “definitively violated” the Information Quality Act, noting approvingly that he had “adequately remedied” the error by apologizing to the experts and explaining the mistake to the media.

But Hastings told Salazar that he had found “serious inadequacies” in Kendall’s investigation. “This includes the recent revelations that Acting Inspector General Mary Kendall participated in meetings with these same Department officials about the development of the Drilling Moratorium Report,” Hastings wrote. He also noted that Kendall had told Congress that she had not participated in the “the process of developing that report” in a June 2010 appearance before his committee.

“These revelations, coupled with allegations that the IG’s lead investigators were unable – or instructed not – to seek all relevant documents from senior Department officials, call into question the independence, impartiality, and thoroughness of the IG’s investigation into the editing of the Drilling Moratorium Report and highlight the need for these interviews,” Hastings said.

Interior Department spokesman Adam Fletcher criticized Hastings’ investigation, saying that it is “made up of an ever-changing and unsettled set of requests” and noting that DOI has given Hastings 2,000 pages of documents already. Hastings argues that the Interior Department has refused to provide the most relevant information. “The limited number of documents that have been made available largely concern communications with the peer reviewers, but not the internal deliberations within the Department or the White House that would shed light on the moratorium decision or how the Drilling Moratorium Report was edited to mischaracterize the peer reviewers’ work,” he wrote in the letter.
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