A foundation established by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and headed by his wife is playing a key role in a real-estate deal backed by the chairman of Halliburton, the oil-services giant that stands to benefit from any of the Interior Department’s decisions to open public lands for oil exploration or change standards for drilling.
A group funded by David Lesar, the Halliburton chairman, is planning a large commercial development on a former industrial site near the center of the Zinkes’ hometown of Whitefish, a resort area that has grown increasingly popular with wealthy tourists. The development would include a hotel and retail shops. There also would be a microbrewery – a business first proposed in 2012 by Ryan Zinke and for which he lobbied town officials for half a decade.
The Politico piece, which is worth reading in its entirety to appreciate all the details, went on to note that the Zinkes would benefit from the real-estate deal in a variety of ways, including the fact that they own land on the other side of the future development, and “if the new hotel, retail stores and microbrewery go through, real estate agents say, the Zinke-owned land next door would stand to increase substantially in value.”
So to recap, the cabinet secretary’s wife runs a foundation; the foundation is backing a project launched by the chairman of Halliburton; the cabinet secretary stands to benefit personally from the project; and Halliburton stands to benefit from decisions made by the cabinet secretary.
Politico talked to Marilyn Glynn, who led the Office of Government Ethics in the Bush/Cheney era, who said all of this appears inappropriate and should prompt Zinke to recuse himself from Halliburton-related policy decisions.
Glynn added, “In a previous administration, whether Bush or Obama, you’d never run across something like this…. Nobody would be engaging in business deals” with executives whose companies they regulate.
Of course, if Zinke’s record were otherwise spotless, and there were no other concerns about his record on ethics, it might be easier to overlook these revelations.
But then we’re reminded of his actual record.
In just one week in April, for example, we learned that the Interior secretary made repeated false claims about being a geologist; his department relied on “a top energy industry lobbyist to help draft a list of potential regulatory rollbacks”; and his department inspector general concluded that Zinke “failed to disclose relevant information to ethics officials when he traveled to Las Vegas to speak to the Golden Knights hockey team last year … including the fact that one of his biggest campaign donors owned the team.”
But that was just the start. Those revelations followed a report from two weeks prior in which we learned the FEC is asking a leadership PAC previously affiliated with Zinke “to account for more than $600,000 of previously unreported contributions from the first six months of 2017.” The same day, TPM reported that a third of the senior Interior Department career officials reassigned under Zinke in a major agency reshuffling “are Native American, even though Native Americans make up less than 10 percent of the Department’s workforce.”
And those are just the controversies from the early spring. As we discussed a while back, there are questions about the cabinet secretary’s controversial travel habits. And his alleged intimidation tactics against Republican senators during the health care fight. And the investigation into whether he reassigned an Interior scientist who disclosed how climate change affects Alaska Native communities.
There are the resignations at the National Park System Advisory Board. And his sweetheart deal for Florida on coastal oil drilling. And the story about Zinke mistakenly using wildfire preparedness funds to pay for one of the secretary’s unrelated helicopter tours. And the story about his previously undisclosed shares in a gun company.
There have also been questions about Zinke’s wife saddling department staffers with extra work. In February, two scientists resigned from Interior after Zinke demanded confidential energy data. Around the same time, a pair of casino-owning American Indian tribes accused Zinke “of illegally blocking their plans to expand operations in Connecticut – a delay that stands to benefit politically connected gambling giant MGM Resorts International.”
Scott Pruitt, look out. In the race for the Trump cabinet official facing the most controversies, you have some credible competition.