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Watchdog group: Sen. Vitter tried to ‘bribe’ Sec. Salazar with pay raise

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) says Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) may have gone too far when he demanded President Barack Obama’s Interior secretary approve deepwater oil well permits in exchange for a salary increase.

CREW filed a complaint (PDF) Tuesday calling for the Senate Select Committee on Ethics to investigate Vitter for bribery.

In a May 23 letter (PDF) to Secretary Ken Salazar, Vitter was clear that he would not vote for a pay raise until the Department of Interior began issuing six deepwater exploratory permits each month.

“Last Friday, I was asked to support legislation in the Senate to grant you a nearly $20,000 salary increase,” Vitter wrote. “Given the completely unsatisfactory pace of your department’s issuance of new deepwater exploratory permits in the Gulf, I cannot possibly give my assent.”

“[W]hen the rate of permits issued for new deepwater exploratory wells reaches pre-moratorium levels (so 6 per month), I will end my efforts to block your salary increase.”

For his part, Salazar quickly turned down the offer, asking that the pay bill be withdrawn.

“[A]s the Senate has considered the disparity of Cabinet salaries relating to the Emoluments Clause, a Member of the Senate has taken the position, in writing, that his vote on the issue is dependent upon the outcomes of his attempted coercion of public acts here at the Department,” he wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). “That position is wrong, and it must be made perfectly clear that his attempt cannot and will not affect the execution of the solemn legal responsibilities that the Department undertakes on behalf of the American people.”

The federal bribery statute states that “[w]hoever directly or indirectly, corruptly gives, offers or promises anything of value to any public official… to influence any official act” could faces fines, up to two years in prison or both.

Vitter’s office has dared the Justice Department to file charges.

“I urge the Obama administration to prosecute,” Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar told Politico. “They’ll make fools of themselves in court and make my boss a Louisiana folk hero at the same time.”

“Whether it is a defense contractor buying French furniture for a congressman in exchange for earmarks, or a senator who ties a department secretary’s pay raise to approving permits, bribery is bribery,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a statement Tuesday.

“Perhaps given that Sen. Vitter escaped accountability for soliciting prostitutes, he also thinks he can evade responsibility for violating the bribery laws,” she added. “At some point, the Senate Ethics Committee needs to make clear to Sen. Vitter that he has to follow the same rules and laws as everyone else.”

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