If there were a contest to determine the most scandal-plagued member of Donald Trump’s cabinet, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would be a strong contender. In fact, we learned over the summer that the Interior Department’s inspector general – the agency’s internal watchdog office – launched an investigation into whether the secretary had violated conflict-of-interest laws.
What’s more, as Politico noted in July, it’s not the only official inquiry into Zinke’s activities.
Yesterday, however, the controversial cabinet secretary appeared to catch a curious break. NBC News reported:
The White House appears to be replacing the agency watchdog at the Interior Department who is in the midst of two investigations into Secretary Ryan Zinke, drawing criticism from government oversight groups.
In an internal email sent last Friday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced to his staff that after just seven months at the agency, the assistant secretary for administration, Suzanne Israel Tufts, was moving over to the Interior Department to be the acting inspector general. Acting inspectors general do not need Senate confirmation.
But the internal announcement came as news to the Interior Department IG’s office, which said in a statement to NBC News, “The Office of Inspector General has received no official communication about any leadership changes.”
This is a messy one. The current IG is Mary Kendall, who’s led the Interior office for a decade, and whose office is already investigating the department’s chief. This isn’t an instance in which Kendall is retiring or leaving the agency to pursue a different job; as of yesterday, she apparently didn’t even know she was being replaced.
Her successor, meanwhile, in an office that’s traditionally been non-partisan, is a long-time Republican attorney, whose previous experience includes “working for the Trump campaign recruiting and training lawyers deployed by the Republican National Lawyers Association to watch the polls on Election Day 2016.”
What kind of background does Suzanne Israel Tufts have in overseeing governmental investigations and oversight? As best as I can tell, none.
The obvious concern is that the investigations into Ryan Zinke posed a real threat to his career, so the White House quietly replaced his department’s chief investigator.
And if that is what happened, it would be a rather serious example of corruption.