National News

A Guide to the Ryan Zinke Investigations

Posted October 31, 2018 9:33 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, faces at least a half-dozen ongoing ethics inquiries related to his leadership at the Interior Department.

The inquiries include investigations into Zinke’s personal financial dealings and his handling of policy matters like the redrawing of the boundaries of a national monument in Utah.

According to a person familiar with the matter, one of those inquiries — into whether Zinke stood to benefit from a Montana development deal linked to the energy giant Halliburton — has very likely been referred to the Department of Justice for further review.

The inspector general’s office also has closed nine probes related to Zinke, in some cases because he was cleared, and in others because of a lack of cooperation.

Government watchdog groups have likened the Zinke investigations to those that dogged Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We didn’t think we’d see something like this again,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit group. “When someone has a couple investigations into them, they’re usually out the door.”

Heather Swift, Zinke’s spokeswoman, did not respond to a request for comment about the investigations.

— Halliburton

In June, the Interior Department’s inspector general opened an investigation into whether conversations Zinke had with David Lesar, the chairman of Halliburton, about a Montana land deal constituted a conflict of interest.

Politico first reported the deal in Zinke’s hometown, Whitefish, Montana, which involved a development group backed by Lesar and a charitable foundation established by Zinke and headed by his wife, Lolita. It included a hotel, retail shops and a microbrewery.

The examination of “involvement in and use of taxpayer resources to advance land developments” focuses on whether taxpayer money was improperly spent on Zinke’s travel when he met with Halliburton representatives.

Swift has said that the secretary did nothing improper and that he had resigned from his foundation’s board of directors before the deal was made.

— Casino Lobbying

Another IG inquiry involves Zinke’s decision last year to block a proposal from two Connecticut Native American tribes to expand a casino operation.

That decision was made against the advice from experts at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and after meetings and phone calls with lobbyists from the casino giant MGM Resorts, which has opposed the tribes’ casino.

Representatives of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes also have filed a lawsuit alleging that Zinke’s decision “was the product of improper political influence.”

— National Monument Boundaries

Last year, the Interior Department dramatically shrank the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. Now, the IG’s office is looking into whether Zinke’s review was conducted in a way that improperly benefited a Republican state representative whose land was removed from the boundaries of the 1.9-million-acre monument.

— Hatch Act Violations

Zinke over the past year has faced a handful of accusations that he violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their offices to influence elections. The most serious involves Zinke’s announcement at a January news conference with Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, that the state would be “off the table” and exempt from the Trump administration’s plan to expand offshore drilling.

Several watchdog groups said Zinke’s statement amounted to blatant political activity, and in April the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that enforces the Hatch Act, confirmed it would take up the matter. — Travel Policies

In early October, the Interior Department inspector general found that Zinke violated agency policy when his wife traveled with him in government vehicles.

The report found that Zinke had considered requesting that his wife become an Interior Department volunteer to legitimize her travel and that he had an agency security detail travel with him and his family during a vacation, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $25,000.

In response to that finding, Swift said the report found that Zinke followed the law and that his travel had been approved by ethics officials.

— Agency Investigations

Other investigations of management practices at the Interior Department under Zinke, but not specific to his personal conduct, include an investigation into a National Park Service report that deleted all mention of human-caused climate change; an Interior Department payment of $139,000 to fix doors in Zinke’s office; and an Office of Special Counsel inquiry into whether Joel Clement, a former Interior Department official, was reassigned in retaliation for criticism of Zinke.

The agency has reassigned about 50 other officials. A separate IG report found that decisions in those cases were made without clear criteria, but it stopped short of calling the moves politically motivated.

— Stalled and Closed Investigations

A number of inquiries linked to Zinke have stalled for lack of information. The most notable was about whether he threatened Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, over her vote last year against a health care overhaul.

Both the IG's office and the Government Accountability Office closed their inquiries into the matter, noting the Interior Department had refused to cooperate.

An examination into Zinke’s decision to block a $1 million coal mining study also ran into roadblocks when the agency declined to explain its reasoning.

Zinke has been cleared of wrongdoing in a handful of other investigations. In three separate decisions, the Office of Special Counsel found that he did not violate the Hatch Act when he gave a speech to a Las Vegas professional hockey team called the Golden Knights. The team was owned by someone who donated to Zinke’s campaign when he was a Montana congressman.

He also was cleared in an investigation into several of his trips between March and October 2017 that mixed official business with political events, including one to the Virgin Islands to attend a political fundraiser.