US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar threatened to punch out a reporter after being questioned over the fate of 1700 captive wild horses that advocates fear went to slaughter.
Salazar was appearing in a personal capacity on election day at a gathering in Fountain, Colorado, at which he voiced his support for President Barack Obama.
Dave Philipps, a reporter representing the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph and a contributor to Propublica.org, approached Salazar with a series of questions about the wild horse program.
In particular, Phillips asked Salazar about the activities of Tom Davis, by far the biggest buyer of wild horses from the Bureau of Land Management in recent years.
Investigations to date have failed to satisfactorily explain the fate of 1700 wild horses bought by Davis for $US10 a head, and wild horse advocates have expressed fears the animals went to slaughter in Mexico.
Just after the final question, Salazar approached Philipps, apparently upset at the line questioning.
A recording reveals Salazar said: “You know what? You can never do that. This is Obama … You know what? If you do that to me again, I’m gonna punch you out.”
Ginger Kathrens, the executive director of the wild horse advocacy group, the Cloud Foundation, was standing nearby.
“I was stunned by the secretary’s rude and clearly hostile comment toward Dave,” she said.
“These threats would have been inappropriate coming from anyone, but the fact that it came out of the mouth of the Secretary of the Interior is alarming. I can’t believe that a top official in Obama’s cabinet could be so defensive.”
Philipps had approached Salazar as he continued work on a follow-up to a story published in September in which he raised questions over the fate of the 1700 horses.
Salazar’s office later said that the interior secretary “regrets the exchange” with Philipps.
Davis is now the subject of a federal investigation being handled by the US Department of Interior Office of Inspector General.
A Bureau of Land Management official confirmed an internal inquiry is under way into the fate of the horses sold to him.
Edwin Roberson, assistant director at the Bureau of Land Management, told KSL Television late last month: “I can confirm right now that the inspector general of the Department of Interior is investigating, (and) has an ongoing investigation into those allegations. Beyond that, I can’t comment.”
The 1700 wild horses and burros sold to David since 2009 represent 70 per cent of the animals purchased through its sale program during that period.
Davis has reportedly admitted to state regulators that he shipped animals out of Colorado in violation of brand inspection laws.
Officials with the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s Brand Inspection Division have turned the case involving over to the district attorney in Alamosa for prosecution.