An Investigation Has Found That Trump’s First Interior Secretary Violated His Ethics Obligations
The inspector general referred the matter to the Justice Department, but it declined to pursue criminal prosecution.
The first Interior secretary under the Trump administration did not comply with his ethics obligations, a watchdog found recently.
Ryan Zinke—who served as secretary of the Interior from March 2017 through the end of December 2018— “did not comply with his ethics obligations as set forth in his ethics agreement, recusal memorandum, and accompanying documents, all of which were provided to senior level executive officials at the [Interior Department] and the [Office of Government Ethics] as a required part of the confirmation process,” said a report from the Interior inspector general released on Feb. 16. The report addressed allegations that during his tenure at Interior, Zinke was still involved with the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation he had helped establish in 2007, even though he had officially resigned as the foundation’s president.
According to the allegations, Zinke and his wife were in talks with private developers about the use of the foundation’s land for a commercial development project called “95 Karrow” and one of the developers and main investors in the project was a senior executive the Halliburton Co. who supposedly was poised to benefit from Zinke’s actions. The allegations also said that Zinke might have used federal resources and his Cabinet position for personal monetary gain and that other Interior staff might have tried to hide his involvement.
The IG found that Zinke did not meet his ethics obligations because he was still involved with the foundation after becoming Interior secretary. The IG office obtained about 64 emails and text messages from August 2017 to July 2018 in which Zinke communicated directly with developers about the 95 Karrow project. There were also potentially up to five calls between Zinke and the developers about negotiations and at least one in-person meeting in August 2017 at Zinke’s office in the Interior Department building in Washington, D.C., the investigation found.
“We also concluded that he violated his duty of candor when he knowingly provided materially incorrect, incomplete, and misleading answers to the [designated agency ethics official] when the [official] questioned him in July 2018 about his role in ongoing foundation matters and the 95 Karrow project,” said the report.
Additionally, “while we did not find that Secretary Zinke did anything in his official capacity to directly benefit the developers of the 95 Karrow project or Halliburton, we did find that Secretary Zinke’s use of his position to direct his subordinates to schedule a meeting with the developers and print out documents related to the 95 Karrow project was a misuse of his public office for private gain,” the report said.
Also, the watchdog did not substantiate claims that Zinke’s staff tried to hide his involvement in the foundation or 95 Karrow Project, or that Zinke violated the federal criminal conflict of interest statute or his obligation to rescue himself from taking part in certain official government duties.
The inspector general said it referred the matter to the Justice Department this past summer, but it declined to pursue criminal prosecution. The IG also provided the report to the current Interior secretary for any actions deemed pertinent.
Government Executive asked the Interior Department for comment on the report overall and any actions Secretary Deb Haaland may have taken regarding it. The department declined to comment.
“Add Ryan Zinke to the long list of former Trump officials who've been officially found to have broken ethics rules,” said the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in a tweet. It also noted that “Zinke racked up 18 federal investigations in under two years,” therefore this new report was “unsurprising.” CREW published a list of these investigations in August 2018. He was cleared in a few and some others were closed due to lack of cooperation.
Zinke, a fifth generation Montanan, is currently running for Congress in the state and was endorsed by Trump over the summer. Zinke previously served in Congress from January 2015 to March 2017.
“It’s no surprise Ryan Zinke put himself above the rule of law again,” said Whitney Tawney, executive director of Montana Conservation, in a statement on Feb. 16. “No amount of gaslighting can deny what the Trump-appointed investigator general found…It’s clear Zinke is not fit to hold any leadership position in the Big Sky State or anywhere else.”
Government Executive asked the Zinke campaign for comment on the report, to which it said it was “Biden administration-led,” contained “false information” and was “shared with the press as a political hit job.” The statement also claims the IG didn’t “bother to talk to Ryan Zinke.” The campaign posted a longer version of the statement on Twitter on Feb. 17.
The Interior IG, Mark Greenblatt, was nominated by Trump in 2019. Also, the report says that Zinke, his wife and the 95 Karrow project developments declined the IG office’s requests for interviews, through their attorneys.