Another Ethically Obtuse Trump Minion May Be Forced Out of the Cabinet
There are more developments about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in the news lately, either signaling that he will leave office as soon as the midterms are complete or that he will be facing a months-long investigation by the Department of Justice over ethical lapses.
His agency’s own internal Office of the Inspector General has referred one of its investigations to Justice. The subject matter was not identified, but news reports suggested that it concerns a personal real estate deal Zinke made with Halliburton Co. Chairman David J. Lesar, tripping prohibitions of conflict-of-interest rules.
Violators of the conflict-of-interest law can face up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine per violation. But to convict, there must be evidence of intention.
For sure, members of a possible Democratic House majority will single Zinke out early for extended hearings on his policies as well as his behavior.
Cowboy-hatted, horse-riding Zinke, who is among President Trump’s most favored Cabinet secretaries, faces at least a half-dozen ongoing ethics inquiries related to his leadership at the Interior Department, according to The New York Times. Those inquiries include personal financial dealings and his handling of policy matters like the redrawing of the boundaries of a national monument in Utah.
Cowboy-hatted, horse-riding Zinke, who is among President Trump’s most favored Cabinet secretaries, faces at least a half-dozen ongoing ethics inquiries related to his leadership at the Interior Department.
As with Tom Price, the former Health and Human Services secretary, former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and others, what seems to be tripping up Zinke are financial transactions and travel issues, not his policy-making to open public land and sea holdings to drilling for fossil fuels or other actions that have riled environmentalists. Government investigators have also closed nine inquiries related to Mr. Zinke, in some cases because he was cleared, and in others because of a lack of cooperation.
The Halliburton matter has been around since June, when Politico reported that Zinke and his wife, Lolita, were part of an investment initially proposed in 2012 for a large commercial development on a former industrial site in Montana. The development has been largely backed by a group funded by Lesar, and a foundation established by Zinke is playing a key role in the plans. Financial disclosure forms show that Lesar and his wife have political ties to the Zinkes, and in 2014 they gave $10,400 to Zinke’s first congressional campaign, the maximum amount allowed by law. The investigation focuses on whether taxpayer money was improperly spent on Zinke’s travel when he met with Halliburton representatives.
According to The Hill.com, it is rare for a Cabinet member to be the subject of a DOJ investigation. Previous instances of similar probes include an Office of Special Counsel referral of Hilda Solis, labor secretary during the Obama administration, to DOJ for a criminal investigation into a potential Hatch Act violation in 2012. She left the administration shortly after the referral. The DOJ’s investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her handling of emails began after Clinton left her post.
The Times detailed other internal investigations that Zinke faces involve:
Casino lobbying: Zinke’s decision to block a proposal by two Connecticut Native American tribes to expand a casino operation has been probed for improper political influence against the advice of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and after meetings and with lobbyists from the casino giant MGM Resorts, which has opposed the tribes’ casino.
National Monument Boundaries: The decision last year to shrink the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah has drawn attention for whether there was improper benefit to a Republican state representative whose land was eliminated from the park area.
Hatch Act Violations: There have been accusations that Zinke violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from using their offices to influence elections, in exempting Florida from plans to expand offshore drilling.
Travel policies: In early October, the Interior Department inspector general found that Zinke violated agency policy when his wife traveled with him in government vehicles, travel worth more than $25,000.
Agency work: The Inspector General is also looking at management practices at the Interior Department, including deleting all mention of human-caused climate change; an Interior Department payment of $139,000 to fix doors in Zinke’s office; and an Office of Special Counsel inquiry into whether Joel Clement, a former Interior Department official, was reassigned in retaliation for criticism of Zinke.
Stalled and Closed Investigations: A number of inquiries linked to Zinke have stalled for lack of information. The most notable was about whether he threatened Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, over her vote last year against a health care overhaul. Both the inspector general’s office and the Government Accountability Office closed their inquiries into the matter, noting that the Interior Department had refused to cooperate. An examination into Mr. Zinke’s decision to block a $1 million coal mining study also ran into roadblocks when the agency declined to explain its reasoning. Zinke has been cleared of wrongdoing in three separate decisions by the Office of Special Counsel that he did not violate the Hatch Act when he gave a speech to a Las Vegas professional hockey team. He also was cleared in an investigation into several of his trips between March and October 2017 that mixed official business with political events, including one to the Virgin Islands to attend a political fund-raiser.
It sounds like he might be ready to ride off into the sunset.