A Guide to the Ryan Zinke Investigations

A Guide to the Ryan Zinke Investigations


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WASHINGTON — Ryan Zinke, who intends to resign as interior secretary at year’s end, faces a number of ethics inquiries related to his leadership at the Interior Department.

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

Government investigators have also closed nine inquiries related to Mr. Zinke, in some cases because he was cleared, and in others because of a lack of cooperation.

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

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

Politico first reported the deal in Mr. Zinke’s hometown, Whitefish, Mont., which involved a development group backed by Mr. Lesar and a charitable foundation established by Mr. 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 Mr. Zinke’s travel when he met with Halliburton representatives.

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

Another inspector general inquiry involves Mr. 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 Mr. Zinke’s decision “was the product of improper political influence.”

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 that Mr. 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 that it would take up the matter.

(The special counsel’s office also has opened a case into whether Mr. Zinke violated the Hatch Act by posting a picture on Twitter of himself wearing socks with President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. The office had previously ruled against officials displaying campaign slogans while on duty.)

The report found that Mr. Zinke had considered requesting that his wife become an Interior Department volunteer in order 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, Ms. Swift said the report found that Mr. Zinke followed the law and that his travel had been approved by ethics officials.

Other investigations of management practices at the Interior Department under Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Zinke.

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

In November, the Interior Department’s Inspector General cleared Mr. Zinke in connection with an investigation into whether he improperly excluded a Utah state lawmaker’s land from the new boundaries of a national monument.

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

Both the inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office closed their inquiries into the matter, noting that the Interior Department had refused to cooperate.

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

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 fund-raiser.

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Lisa Friedman reports on climate and environmental policy in Washington. A former editor at Climatewire, she has covered nine international climate talks. @LFFriedman