House Oversight Committee threatens salaries of Interior staff who block interviews
The House Oversight Committee on Tuesday threatened to withhold the salaries of Interior Department officials who have blocked lawmakers from interviewing agency employees about whether Secretary David Bernhardt was complying with recordkeeping laws.
The committee’s threat ratchets up the pressure on Interior in the latest skirmish between House Democrats and the Trump administration over the lawmakers’ complaints that agencies are withholding documents and ignoring requests to send senior officials to testify before Congress.
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“Please be advised that any official at the Department who ‘prohibits or prevents’ or ‘attempts or threatens to prohibit or prevent’ any officer or employee of the Federal Government from speaking with the Committee could have his or her salary withheld pursuant to section 713 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act,” Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a prepared statement.
Cummings also complained in the letter to Cole Rojewski, Interior’s director of congressional and legislative affairs, that the agency “does not appear to recognize that Congress is an independent and co-equal branch of government” that is empowered to conduct its own investigations.
Oversight has sought interviews with Interior’s administrative assistant to the deputy secretary, scheduling and advance director, executive assistant to the office of the deputy secretary and acting chief of staff and associate deputy secretary. The committee asked Interior to respond to the interview requests by Friday.
Cummings is also using the the threat of withholding salaries to force Commerce Department officials to appear before it for interviews relating plans to add citizenship questions to the 2020 Census.
In his statement, Cummings pointed to a 2016 GAO report that said a department’s budget “appropriation was not available to pay the salary of a federal officer or employee who prevents another federal officer or employee from communicating directly with any member, committee, or subcommittee of Congress.”
Oversight and the National Archives and Records Administration are investigating allegations that Bernhardt was keeping meetings off his official calendars and not supplying information about meetings to the public.
Interior refused the committee’s previous requests to interview several staffers, telling Oversight that the interviews “are unnecessary at this time,” according to a letter the committee sent to Interior today.
At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Interior Department budget on Tuesday, Bernhardt defended preventing the employees from talking to the committee, saying “it’s not the appropriate time” for those interviews, and that his decision was designed to protect career employees.
“You’re talking about individual employees who have long standing in the department,” he said in response to questioning from Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.). “We have wonderful career employees here … they’ve never had this happen to them in their careers.”
Lawrence shot back that Congress was responsible for oversight of the agency.
“You have been requested to comply. With all due to respect, you are required to comply,“ she said.
Besides refusing interviews, Interior has declined to provide documents the Oversight and House Natural Resources committees requested on March 13, according Cummings‘ letter. The department instead offered tens of thousands of pages of documents unrelated to the committee’s request, the letter states.