This is the second in a series of posts looking at ethics issues in the Trump Administration.
Last week, Public Citizen and House Democrats requested an ethics investigation into U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke after Politico broke the story about a real-estate deal between Zinke’s family foundation and the chairman of Halliburton, “a fossil fuel services company whose profits are directly affected by the Secretary’s policy decisions,” wrote Democrats in their letter to the U.S. Committee on Natural Resources.
The Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation, created by Zinke and currently run by his wife, Lola Zinke, has agreed to allot a portion of its land—land donated to the foundation to build a public veterans park that also would serve as a children’s sledding park—to a commercial development in the Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana. Halliburton Chairman David Lesar has plans to build a hotel, retail shopping center, and microbrewery on a large lot neighboring the Zinke’s planned veterans park. Zinke sought to own and operate a microbrewery in 2012 and lobbied town officials to approve his proposal over the following six years. Whitefish city planner, David Taylor, reported that the new project’s developer recommended setting the brewery aside for Ryan and Lola Zinke to run.
Zinke’s involvement in the so-called 95 Karrow project looks fishy on several counts. For one, the Zinke’s not only stand to gain from the microbrewery, but the development would also increase the value of their next-door land. Secondly, the Halliburton chairman is a long-time friend of the Zinke’s: he donated $10,400—the maximum allowed by law—to Zinke’s campaign for a House seat. Federal disclosures also reveal that Halliburton’s lobbyists met with Interior officials on several occasions to discuss the department’s policies on hydraulic fracturing—a fracking technique that leaks methane gas into ground and surface water, contributes to air pollution, and increases the risk of earthquakes.
Most importantly, Zinke’s ties to 95 Karrow may violate conflict of interest rules that bar executive branch officials from involvement in government decisions concerning people with whom they or their close relatives have a financial relationship. This possible transgression is again telling of how some Trump appointees have cooperated with the industries they are supposed to regulate, pursuing personal enrichment at the public’s expense.
Zinke has denied allegations of ethical misconduct by arguing that he resigned from the Northern Veterans foundation when he became Interior Secretary. However, recently released emails suggest the Zinke’s engagement with his family foundation did not end with his resignation. Six months after Zinke took office, 95 Karrow’s chief developer continued to correspond with the Interior Secretary. “I want you to know,” the developer wrote in an email to Zinke on September 14, 2017, “that whatever assistance you need to protect and promote your vision for the park, please let me know and I will make sure it is communicated and executed.”
Zinke dodged ethical questions when new scandals over the Russia investigation distracted the public from Puerto Rico’s cancellation of a contract with a two-man firm, located in Zinke’s hometown to rebuild Puerto Rico’s power grid. Let’s prevent Zinke from evading due scrutiny this time. Call your members of Congress at 202-224-3121 and tell them to support a Zinke ethics investigation.