Interior Secretary's Ties to Planned Brewery Being Probed by Watchdog

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before Congress in May. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before Congress in May. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Suspicions that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is working with the Halliburton oil giant to build a long-sought brewery in Zinke’s Montana hometown are being pooh-poohed by his department.

As first reported by Politico, three House Democrats in June asked Interior Department acting inspector general Mary Kendall to investigate reports that Zinke was cooperating with Halliburton Chairman David Lesar on a shared parking lot in Flathead, Mont. That facility might eventually include a craft brewery allegedly sought by Zinke on land owned by the Zinke family’s Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation.

Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., Donald McEachin, D-Va., and Jared Huffman, D-Calif., received a reply on July 18—which Government Executive on Thursday confirmed—agreeing to undertake an investigation of the possible “use of taxpayer resources to advance land developments” in the Montana town, and to assure “that decisions that affect the nation’s welfare are not compromised by individual self-enrichment.”

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The three Democratic ranking committee members cited exchanges between Zinke and Casey Malmquist, the general manager of SmartLam, a cross-laminated timber manufacturer that develops land in Whitefish.

Politico’s reporting suggests that Zinke and his wife Lola have “made no secret of his dream of opening a microbrewery in his hometown,” pointing to a 2012 plan submitted to the Flathead city council, and alleged meetings with developers in Washington after Zinke became Interior secretary.

Halliburton, which stands to benefit from many of the Trump administration’s energy and deregulatory policies, has been planning a construction project in Flathead, according to news reports.

Zinke in his one statement denied the charges: “Neither myself or my wife were involved in the city's approval of the development that included among other facilities, a microbrewery on the developer's property adjacent to the proposed parking lot,” he told Politico. “Neither my wife or I are involved with the building or operation of any planned microbrewery. Any suggestion to the contrary is absurd.”

Interior Press Secretary Heather Swift on Thursday told Government Executive that Politico’s reporting is “wildly misleading” and that it contains “fictitious bits” that local reporters have contradicted.

The developer Malmquist, according to reporting in the Flathead Beacon, said the national reports of Zinke’s alleged conflict of interest have made a “mountain out of a sled hill.”  He added that he has worked with Halliburton chair Lesar on investments for decades and that the property has long been envisioned as a development site.

The lawmakers see it differently. “The relationship between Secretary Zinke and Halliburton Chairman Dave Lesar should set off [alarm] bells,” Huffman said. “The secretary of the Interior and his family stand to personally benefit from a land deal funded by the chairman of Halliburton, a company with literally billions of dollars of business on the line when Secretary Zinke makes decisions about where, and how, oil drilling is permitted in this country. In any normal administration—and if Congress were capable of conducting oversight—this outrageous level of self-dealing and cronyism would be a national scandal.”

Halliburton did not respond to inquiries by publication time.

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