Interior IG: Zinke misused position as Interior secretary

Watchdog said it referred the findings to the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute

Trump administration Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appears before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing in 2018.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Trump administration Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appears before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing in 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 17, 2022 at 8:00am

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke “misused his official position” in supporting a project that could benefit a foundation he founded with his wife, federal investigators said.

After his confirmation, Zinke, the first Interior secretary of the Trump administration, said he resigned his position at the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation, which he started in his hometown of Whitefish, Mont., and would not participate in the organization.

In a report published Wednesday, the department’s inspector general said Zinke maintained close ties with the foundation and negotiated with developers of a commercial project.

The inspector general said it referred its findings to the Department of Justice, which declined last summer to prosecute.

Zinke pushed to open up public lands to drilling and mining and faced numerous probes during his time overseeing Interior, including the inquiry into the foundation, before resigning in January 2019 amid ethics investigations.

Zinke is running for the open House seat to represent Montana in Congress. He served in the House as a Republican for one term before joining the Trump administration.

His campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Founded in 2007 with contributions from veterans, the foundation created an area for kids to sled, and BNSF Railway donated about 5 acres to create a park.

Zinke was the president of the foundation until March 2017, when he formally stepped down after being confirmed as Interior secretary.

While at Interior, Zinke communicated with developers of a commercial project called 95 Karrow, which included plans to build a “parking lot, a microbrewery, fencing, and other supporting elements,” the inspector general said.

The developers proposed to use property owned by the foundation as a parking lot, and Zinke sent a letter of intent in September 2017, while he was secretary, to the developers, consenting to their use of foundation land for the parking lot, investigators said.

Zinke’s wife withdrew that letter of intent in November 2018. Zinke and his wife, Lola, declined to be interviewed for the investigation, as did the project developers.

The inspector general said it obtained 64 text messages and emails Zinke sent between August 2017 and July 2018 directly with developers of the project, which included as a backer a senior executive at Halliburton, the oil-field services firm.

“Many of these communications contained substantive discussions about specific design issues related to the 95 Karrow project, including the developer’s proposed use of the Foundation property for a parking lot and Secretary Zinke’s apparent interest in operating a microbrewery onsite,” the report says.

In August 2017, Zinke met with developers in his official office of the Interior headquarters in Washington, investigators said.

“The evidence established that, after the meeting, Secretary Zinke provided the developers with a personal tour of the Lincoln Memorial and then ate dinner with them at a local restaurant,” the report says. “The evidence further established that, at a minimum, the developers presented Secretary Zinke with a plan for the parking lot — which was a significant point of negotiation for the parties — at some point during their trip to Washington, D.C.”

The inspector general said Zinke broke ethics rules by maintaining ties to the foundation while in office, misled a department ethics official when asked about the foundation and “misused his official position” when he directed “subordinates to assist him with matters related to the Foundation and the 95 Karrow project.”

The inspector general said it did not establish that “Zinke’s staff tried to conceal the Secretary’s involvement in Foundation matters or the 95 Karrow project.”

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, along with Reps. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va., and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., requested in 2018 the watchdog examine ties between Zinke and the Whitefish development.

“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,” Grijalva said Wednesday.