clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke might face a criminal investigation

Allegations of improprieties have caught the attention of President Trump.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may face a criminal investigation after his agency’s internal watchdog referred an inquiry to the Justice Department this week.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may face a criminal investigation after his agency’s internal watchdog referred an inquiry to the Justice Department this week.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s ethics troubles have taken a turn for the worse, with federal prosecutors now looking into whether there needs to be a criminal investigation into his conduct. Allegations of improprieties have also caught the attention of President Trump. “I haven’t seen [the allegations] yet, but I’ll take a look,” Trump told reporters Monday. “I’m going to look at any reports, I’ll take a look. Certainly, I would not be happy with that at all.”

The main probe, which has been turned over to the Justice Department, centers on Zinke’s involvement with a Montana land deal backed by David Lesar, the chair of Halliburton, an oil field services company. A foundation established by Zinke and run by his wife, Lolita Zinke, owns land in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana. Lesar’s developer is planning to build on some of the land, Politico reported this summer. The proposed hotel and retail stores that the developer wants to build in Whitefish also stand to boost property values in a nearby parcel of land owned by the Zinkes.

As an oil field service firm, Halliburton has direct and indirect business involving the Interior Department, which manages mining and drilling rights on federal lands.

The Washington Post revealed this week that Zinke remained involved with his foundation even after he took office as secretary of the interior, violating an ethics pledge he signed in January 2017. Emails showed that he was still coordinating the land deal as late as August 2017.

The Interior Department’s internal watchdog, the inspector general, was in charge of the land deal investigation until it referred its inquiry to the Department of Justice. According to the Post, that could lead to an investigation that results in criminal charges.

The land deal is one of at least three reviews Zinke is facing from the IG’s office. Another probe is looking into his decision not to grant two Native tribes in Connecticut approval to open a casino. It came after an intense lobbying campaign by Nevada Republicans to block the deal, raising the concern of improper political influence on the decision.

The IG is also investigating whether Zinke improperly used agency funds to pay for travel for his wife.

On top of these reviews, there are several probes into Zinke’s conduct by other government oversight groups, including the US Office of Special Counsel and the House Oversight Committee. In total, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington tallied 17 federal investigations around Zinke. It puts him on par with former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who was forced to resign this summer after a tsunami of scandals big and small caught up with him.

Zinke hasn’t done himself any favors in avoiding scrutiny.

He has built up a reputation for ostentation, riding a horse to his first day on the job, minting a challenge coin, upgrading his office doors at an initial cost of $139,000, and having the Interior Department headquarters fly a flag whenever he’s in the building.

Lately, gaffes have kept him in the spotlight. Most recently, the Huffington Post reported that he drew a comparison between Martin Luther King Jr. and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at a dedication ceremony for Camp Nelson, a Union training post in Kentucky for black soldiers during the Civil War:

“I like to think that Lincoln doesn’t have his back to General Lee. He’s in front of him. There’s a difference. Similar to Martin Luther King doesn’t have his back to Lincoln. He’s in front of Lincoln as we march together to form a more perfect union,” Zinke said at the start of a 25-minute speech. “That’s a great story, and so is Camp Nelson.”

Civil rights groups condemned the remark ― which American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic political action committee, first uncovered and which HuffPost confirmed with video posted to Facebook by a local newspaper ― as offensive and ahistorical.

Lee, as you may recall, led an army that kidnapped free black men at gunpoint and sold them into slavery.

Another memorable gaffe was when Zinke blamed “environmental terrorist groups” for massive wildfires. He also told an oil and gas industry conference that “our government should work for you.”

Zinke is still advancing the ball for Trump despite the allegations of misconduct

However, the bigger lingering concern is whether Zinke has tried to quash the IG’s investigation into his conduct. Reports emerged earlier this month that Zinke replaced Mary Kendall — the acting inspector general leading the inquiries into Zinke, who has been in office for nine years — with Suzanne Israel Tufts, a Trump appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Interior Department aggressively denied the claim. Spokesperson Heather Swift placed the blame entirely on HUD for announcing that Tufts would replace Kendall, telling the Washington Post that HUD “sent out an email that had 100 percent false information in it.”

For many Democrats and environmental groups, Zinke’s aboveboard actions are just as alarming. Zinke has presided over the largest rollback of federal land protections in US history, approved new development in wilderness areas, and opened up nearly all US coastal waters to offshore drilling.

But the mounting ethics complaints against Zinke are letting lawmakers turn up the heat on the secretary and his staff:

The big question is whether Zinke’s ethical troubles will slow him down or draw Trump’s ire. For now, Zinke continues to deliver rollbacks on environmental rules for coal, oil, and natural gas on public lands, a key plank of the president’s agenda. Trump told reporters Monday that Zinke has “done a very good job as secretary.” And with the upcoming election, it seems unlikely that Zinke’s troubles will attract too much more of Trump’s attention.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.