Zinke in Colorado: Background Information

Oct 21, 2018

To: Interested Parties
From: Aaron Weiss, Center for Western Priorities:
Re: Background on 18 federal investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ahead of Monday appearance in Denver

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is scheduled to make an appearance Monday at the National Conference of American Indians’ 75th Annual Convention and Marketplace, held at the Hyatt Regency at the Colorado Convention Center. In just over a year and a half in office, Secretary Zinke is already facing 18 investigations into his conduct, with 15 investigations confirmed and at least another three investigations requested. Just last week, Interior’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a report finding that Secretary Zinke broke department policy by arranging taxpayer-funded travel for his wife, Lola Zinke.

Secretary Zinke violated Interior department travel standards, wasted taxpayer money, latest report concludes

  • Interior’s newest OIG report finds that Secretary Zinke broke his own department’s policy by having his wife travel with him in federal vehicles. Instead of complying with the policy, Secretary Zinke changed it. The report also quotes an ethics official who says Secretary Zinke told Acting Solicitor Daniel Jorjani to lie to reporters about his wife’s presence on official trips, falsely claiming she was an ombudsman for the department.

  • The secretary even went so far as to inquire if making Mrs. Zinke a department ‘volunteer’ could justify her presence on official trips, which raised concerns about how much staff time was being spent to legitimize her travel. “We’re spending taxpayer dollars trying to figure out if she can be a volunteer so that he [Zinke] doesn’t have to pay [reimbursement for her riding in Government vehicles],” Interior ethics official Ed McDonnell said.

  • The report also found that taxpayers paid $25,000 to send a security detail for the Zinke’s two-week vacation to Turkey and Greece. The secretary also arranged an official trip with his wife to California’s Channel Islands, then claimed his friends and donors were ‘stakeholders’ so they could get a free, taxpayer-funded boat ride.

  • Secretary Zinke has also faced investigations over his use of chartered aircraft, suppressing science within his agency, violating the Hatch Act, and unjustified reassignment of senior staff.

There remain several open and requested investigations into Secretary Zinke’s actions

  • The Secretary is under investigation over his role in a Whitefish, MT real estate deal, backed by the chairman of Halliburton, in which the secretary stands to personally benefit. Five months after claiming to have cut ties with the project, Zinke met with Halliburton chairman David Lesar and the project developer in his government office for 90 minutes, then gave them a private tour of the Lincoln Memorial.

  • The OIG is also investigating the redrawn boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which the Trump administration attempted to cut by nearly 1 million acres late last year, following a complaint by the Western Values Project that the new boundaries financially benefit Utah State Representative Mike Noel.

  • Investigators are also looking into Secretary Zinke’s decision to block two Connecticut tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, from opening a casino. The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Indian Gaming had recommended approving construction, but after intense lobbying by casino giant MGM to influence high-level officials in Secretary Zinke’s inner circle, the agency changed its mind.

With Scott Pruitt’s resignation, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is now the most scandal-plagued cabinet member remaining

  • During his tenure, Scott Pruitt racked up an astonishing 19 federal investigations. Secretary Zinke is now racing to top that number, already facing 18 investigations of his own.

  • By comparison, the four secretaries of the Interior to precede Secretary Zinke‚Ää—‚ÄäSecretaries Jewell and Salazar who served under President Obama, and Secretaries Kempthorne and Norton who served under President Bush‚Ää—‚Ääare known to have faced a combined 11 investigations into their conduct.

A new political appointee at the helm of Interior’s investigations?

  • According to an internal email obtained by The Hill, the Trump administration was planning to move a political appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development into the Inspector General position at Interior. Suzanne Israel Tufts, who has no experience in government oversight or environmental policy, was slated to step into the traditionally nonpartisan role. Days later, hours before the release of the OIG’s latest report, the Interior Department denied the reports, calling HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s email “100 percent false information.” Tufts would have replaced Mary Kendall, Interior’s longtime acting general who has overseen Secretary Zinke’s laundry list of investigations.