Political News

Inquiry Into Ryan Zinke Land Deal Is Said to Escalate

Posted October 30, 2018 5:40 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The Interior Department’s top watchdog has referred an investigation into a possible conflict of interest by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to the Justice Department, according to a person familiar with the matter, a sign that the federal government is considering a criminal investigation of Zinke’s actions.

It is not known which investigation was referred to the Justice Department. Zinke is the subject of at least 18 known federal investigations into allegations of ethical misconduct or other policy violations.

However, the person familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said it was highly likely that the investigation now being examined by the Justice Department was one involving a Montana land deal involving Zinke and the chairman of the energy giant Halliburton.

The Interior Department official, Mary J. Kendall, the agency’s acting inspector general, opened an investigation this summer into the Montana real estate deal, which included a foundation that Zinke established and a development group backed by David J. Lesar, chairman of the energy services giant Halliburton.

The inquiry, opened at the request of congressional Democrats, was intended to examine “involvement in and use of taxpayer resources to advance land developments,” Kendall wrote in a letter to members of Congress in the summer.

It focuses on a development deal in Whitefish, Montana, Zinke’s hometown, between a charitable group run by his wife, Lolita Zinke, and funded by Lesar. The deal included a hotel, retail shops, a gallery and a microbrewery.

Zinke’s personal lawyer, Stephen M. Ryan, said in an emailed statement that the interior secretary was not aware of any Department of Justice action in the matter.

“The Secretary has not been contacted or notified of any DOJ investigation or Inspector General referral,” Ryan said. “It is disappointing that unsubstantiated and anonymous sources have described an IG office referral to members of the media, as this violates DOJ and IG policy direction. The Secretary has done nothing wrong.”

Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Zinke, has said in the past that the secretary did nothing improper and that he resigned from his charitable foundation’s board of directors before the deal was made

The Justice Department did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

If confirmed, the referral would be the second recent move by Kendall’s office that advanced investigations into Zinke’s conduct.

This month, a report by Kendall’s office concluded that Zinke violated his agency’s travel policy by having his wife travel with him in government vehicles. That report also found that Zinke considered requesting that his wife become an Interior Department volunteer in order to legitimize her travel.

In addition, Zinke asked his security detail to drive a nongovernment employee to the airport on one occasion, also in violation of agency policy, the report found.

Environmental activists have criticized Zinke as he has sought to scale back protections on public lands and open up vast new areas to oil and gas drilling.

Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, who is poised to become chairman of the committee should Democrats gain the majority of the House in the midterm elections, said that he was prepared to increase attention on the investigations into Zinke.

“If Democrats are given the opportunity to hold a congressional majority next year, Secretary Zinke will be called to testify in February on why his conduct in office merited referral to the Justice Department, whether that referral was related to the recent attempted firing of his inspector general, and his many other failures and scandals,” Grijalva said in a statement.

Grijalva was referring to reports that Zinke had sought to replace Kendall, a career official, as the Interior Department’s top watchdog, with a political appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Suzanne Tufts. In the end, Kendall remained in the job.