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Gov. considers Zinke investigation: Preliminary probe opened into call with Murkowski

Daily News Staff Writer

The Office of the Inspector General has opened a preliminary investigation into phone calls made from Secretary of the Interior Zinke to Alaska senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.

Nancy DiPaolo, OIG director of external affairs, confirmed to the Daily News that a “preliminary investigation” into the nature and intent of the phone calls was underway.

Reps. Raśl Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, requested the investigation citing potential legal and ethical violations.

DiPaolo said that since her office received the formal request from Congress they typically have to do some sort of inquiry or investigation.

“I think people are jumping to conclusions, so, ‘preliminary investigation’ means vetting the situation to see whether we should open an investigation or not,” DiPaolo said. “Anytime we receive a formal request from Congress we certainly would vet it, it would always trigger a preliminary investigative look.”

DiPaolo added that she expects that the findings of the preliminary investigation would be done very soon, “by early next week probably.”

The phone calls in question occurred in July after Murkowski broke with her party and opposed a concerted Republican effort to repeal current health care legislation.

Sullivan, who is also a Republican, reported that he received a call from Zinke following his colleague’s controversial vote. Sullivan told the Alaska Dispatch News that Zinke said Alaska’s standing with the Trump Administration could be in jeopardy over Murkowski’s vote.

"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 told ADN in July.

Since then, Zinke has repeatedly denied claims that the phone calls represented a threat, even posting a photo on social media showing him and Murkowski drinking Alaskan brand beer together.

Nicole Daigle, Murkowski’s spokesperson for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, offered a statement on the preliminary investigation: “Sen. Murkowski was not threatened by Secretary Zinke. They have a friendly, respectful relationship, and are working closely together on a number of key priorities for Alaska and America.”

Sullivan also downplayed the call, saying in a July interview that the nature of the conversation “was more in generalities.”

He said that although he pushed back against Zinke, the Trump Administration has been more supportive of energy initiatives in Alaska than the Obama Administration.

When asked for comment, Sullivan’s staff released a statement saying: “The senator has already commented on this matter and has no further comment.”