Watchdog Finds Trump Interior Boss Ryan Zinke Violated Ethics Rules, Misused Office

The former Interior Department chief remained directly involved in a Montana real estate project after joining the Trump administration.

Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump’s first scandal-plagued head of the Interior Department, violated ethics rules and misused his office with his ongoing involvement in a real estate project in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, the department’s internal watchdog concluded in a new report.

The report from Interior’s Office of Inspector General is yet another scathing rebuke of Zinke’s repeated false claims that internal probes against him were “B.S.” and that he was cleared of all wrongdoing — a drum that he continues to pound as he campaigns for Montana’s new congressional seat.

The real estate project, known as 95 Karrow, is financially backed by David Lesar, who was the chairman of oil giant Halliburton at the time. A foundation Zinke started and was president of before resigning to take over Interior ― The Great Northern Veterans Peace Park ― owns a 14-acre lot adjacent to the project site and initially agreed to allow developers to build a parking lot on the foundation’s land. Zinke also had hopes of opening a microbrewery on the site.

While in office and after stepping down as the foundation’s president, Zinke stayed in constant contact with project developers and “played an extensive, direct, and substantive role in representing the Foundation during negotiations” on the project, according to the inspector general report.

The inspector general concluded Zinke’s actions violated the department ethics agreement that he signed upon being confirmed as secretary. Investigators also concluded that Zinke knowingly provided incorrect and incomplete information when Interior ethics officials questioned him about his involvement, a violation of his duty of candor, and misused his official government position by directing Interior staff to assist him with matters related to the project and the foundation.

Investigators, however, did not find that Zinke violated federal conflict-of-interests laws since he did not participate in any Interior matters involving the real estate project. They also did not find that Zinke acted in his official capacity to specifically benefit Halliburton.

The inspector general referred its findings to the Justice Department, which last summer declined to prosecute Zinke’s actions, according to the report.

“Today’s report shows us yet again that former President Trump’s appointees didn’t view their positions at the highest level of our government as an opportunity to serve our country, but as an opportunity to serve the interests of their personal pocketbooks,” Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement Wednesday. Grijalva is one of three House Democrats who called on the Interior’s internal watchdog to investigate the matter back in 2018.

Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing in May 2018.
Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing in May 2018.
Yuri Gripas via Reuters

In an email statement, Zinke’s campaign slammed the report as a “political hit job” and claimed investigators “didn’t even bother to talk to Ryan Zinke, staff or anyone else who was supposedly involved in the non-existent ‘negotiations.’”

“Only in Biden’s corrupt admin is talking to one’s neighbor about the town’s public meetings and history of the land a sin,” the campaign said.

The report was issued by Mark Greenblatt, the Trump-nominated inspector general of the Interior Department.

Investigators note in the report that Zinke and his wife, Lola, who took over as the foundation’s president after Zinke’s confirmation, refused multiple requests for an interview. The couple’s unwillingness to cooperate led to the inspector general issuing subpoenas to obtain developers’ phone and email records related to the project.

Zinke exchanged more than 60 emails and text messages, participated in up to five phone calls and met in person at least once with 95 Karrow developers while in office, investigators found. Among other things, those communications included discussions and negotiations about specific project design issues and Zinke’s interest in building and running a microbrewery.

When media outlets began asking about Zinke’s ongoing involvement with the project, he consulted with project leaders about how to respond. In one particular exchange, Zinke told a developer that an unnamed news organization was “not our friend” and stressed that he’d turned over all decision-making authority to the foundation’s board.

Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the conservation group Center for Western Priorities, said the report “confirmed what we’ve known all along — corruption was rampant in the Trump administration.”

“Self-dealing like this was par for the course. Ryan Zinke only got fired because he got caught,” she said in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that Attorney General [Merrick] Garland declined to pursue a criminal case against Secretary Zinke. The IG report makes it clear that Zinke broke the law when he ordered his staff to facilitate a meeting and private tour with the developers, one of whom was a top executive at Halliburton.”

Zinke faced at least 18 formal investigations during his tenure as head of the Interior Department, and ultimately resigned from his post in January 2019 under a cloud of scandals. He is now running for Montana’s new congressional seat.

On the campaign trail, Zinke has railed against resistance among Interior staff and dismissed investigations into his conduct as politically motivated.

“All of them ran their course,” he said of the probes during an August interview on the conservative podcast “Ruthless.” “No wrongdoing in the end, and there was no wrongdoing at the beginning.”

Not true then, not true now.

In 2019, the Office of Inspector General concluded that Zinke violated federal law when he tweeted a photo of himself wearing socks that featured Trump’s face and the words “Make America Great Again.” And in 2018, the agency watchdog determined that Zinke violated government travel policies by bringing his wife on taxpayer-funded trips and by asking staff to explore making her a department volunteer, a move that would have legitimized her travel.

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