Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar threatened to “punch out” a journalist for having the temerity to ask him questions about public policy at an Election-Day event in Colorado last week.

Salazar was at an Obama campaign office in Fountain, CO, as part of a tour through the state to support the president and encourage voter turnout. Dave Philipps, a reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, approached the secretary after a short speech and asked for an on-camera interview, which Salazar granted.

Philipps first asked the secretary about his biggest accomplishments, and then popped a question about the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) sale of wild horses to a Colorado livestock hauler who is suspected of illegally selling them to Mexican slaughterhouses.

Salazar said he believed there was an investigation under way, but that he didn’t know any more about it. “I’m happy to have my office talk to you about that at the appropriate time,” he told Philipps.

Philipps followed up with a question about whether or not there needed to be changes to the BLM’s horse-management program, which Salazar half-answered, then got hacked off. The Election-Day event was not, in the secretary’s mind, the appropriate time for such questions.

“You know what, you ever do that - this is an Obama - you know what, you do that to me again, and I’ll punch you out, okay?” he told Philipps as soon as the interview ended. “Don’t ever, ever - from the Gazette or anybody else - do that to me again. You set me up, you know? I was here talking about the campaign….”

“You’re here as a public figure,” Philipps interjected.

“No,” Salazar and an unidentified woman, presumably an aide, shot back in unison.

“He’s here on his personal time, actually,” the woman’s voice continued.

“I’m here for President Obama,” Salazar cut in. “I’m talking about the campaign. You want to talk to me about a public policy issue, you can do that at another time and another place.”

“In my defense, I tried multiple time through your press secretary to do that, and you never got back to me,” Philipps said, but Salazar was done talking.

Fortunately, Philipps recorded the entire exchange, which lasted three minutes, and Ginger Kathrens, the executive director of The Cloud Foundation, an organization dedicated to the preservation of wild horses on public lands, captured the interview on video.

Philipps did not report Salazar’s threat, however. Instead, Politico broke the story on Tuesday, based a Monday press release from The Cloud Foundation. Its article included a comment from Interior spokesman Blake Androff, who said Salazar “regrets the exchange.”

According to an account published Wednesday morning by the Gazette, it “held the audio, hoping that Salazar would agree to a substantive interview concerning the wild horse program.” Apparently, that never happened.

Philipps, who was finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2010, first wrote about suspicions that the Colorado livestock hauler, Tom Davis, had illegally sold horses purchased from BLM to Mexican slaughterhouses in late September in an investigation published in conjunction with ProPublica. While Philipps could not prove that Davis had actually done so, he presented strong evidence that Davis had at least transported the horses to Texas (near “a border town that is the only crossing for horses going to slaughter in Mexico for hundreds of miles”) in violation of brand-inspection laws designed to prevent livestock theft.

In a follow-up article published Sunday, Philipps reported that Davis had admitted the illegal transportation to state regulators, and that “Officials with the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Brand Inspection Division have turned the case involving Tom Davis over to the district attorney in Alamosa for prosecution.”

The Gazette posted the recording of Philipps’s interview with Salazar on Tuesday, and according to its account of the altercation, “The secretary, dressed in a suit and wearing his signature white cowboy hat, approached Philipps, pushed The Gazette’s video camera out of the way, and got within inches of the reporter’s face.”

Ken Ward Jr., the chair of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Freedom of Information Task Force, called Salazar’s assertion that public-policy questions should be off limits at a campaign event “absurd” in a string of tweets about the incident. “But the real problem is Salazar’s behavior is indicative of [the] Obama administration’s general views on answering questions from the press,” he added.

Indeed, reporters have widely criticized the White House for failing to live up to promises to improve government openness and transparency, but Salazar’s threat of physical violence is a new low. His cowboy hat notwithstanding, Colorado is no longer the Wild West.

Ends today: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

 

More in The Observatory

Take a beat

Read More »

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.