Zinke: ‘I had absolutely nothing to do with’ Whitefish contract

Zinke: ‘I had absolutely nothing to do with’ Whitefish contract
© Greg Nash

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkePatagonia files suit against Trump cuts to Utah monuments Presidential power over monuments should have checks and balances Overnight Regulation: Feds push to clarify regs on bump stocks | Interior wants Trump to shrink two more monuments | Navajo Nation sues over monument rollback | FCC won't delay net neutrality vote | Senate panel approves bill easing Dodd-Frank rules MORE forcefully denied that he had any involvement with Whitefish Energy Holdings’s utility repair contract in Puerto Rico and lambasted accusations to the contrary.

“I had absolutely nothing to do with Whitefish Energy receiving a contract in Puerto Rico. Any attempts by the dishonest media or political operatives to tie me to awarding or influencing any contract involving Whitefish are completely baseless,” Zinke said in the Friday afternoon statement.

“Only in elitist Washington, D.C., would being from a small town be considered a crime.”

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Zinke has been ensnared in the ongoing controversy over how Whitefish landed a $300 million contract to repair Puerto Rico’s electric grid after Hurricane Maria. The company had two employees and little experience in utility work before Maria, but still got the no-bid contract.

Zinke and Whitefish CEO Andy Techmanski are both from Whitefish, Mont., a town of around 6,000. His office told The Washington Post earlier this week that the two know each other, but only because “everybody knows everybody.”

In addition, Zinke’s son briefly worked for Whitefish on a project during one summer.

“Neither myself nor anyone in my office has advocated for this company in any way,” Zinke said in the Friday statement.

He acknowledged that the company reached out to him after it obtained the contract, but he took no action on the matter. NBC Montana reported earlier this month that Whitefish sought help from Zinke in getting personnel to Puerto Rico.

Zinke’s statement came after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Whitefish topic came up at an Oval Office meeting between him and President Trump.

“He did ask Secretary Zinke, for clarification purposes, and [Zinke] reiterated once again that ... the federal government, and specifically, he, had no role in that contract,” Sanders said.

Nonetheless, Democrats and environmentalists have latched onto Zinke’s potential role in the controversy.

The Sierra Club, which has previously called for Zinke to resign, has dubbed the controversy “Whitefishgate,” a reference to former President Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

“The Trump administration’s failure to answer questions today further proves that they want everyone to look the other way at this shady contract precisely because the Whitefish contract appears to be the latest example of Trump and Ryan Zinke pulling strings to enrich their friends,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement after Sanders’s news conference.

“They’ve proven they cannot be trusted to play by the rules, so a full investigation must determine who pushed for this tiny utility with close ties to Trump and Zinke to get this lucrative contract. Meanwhile, this contract should be immediately cancelled so someone capable of turning on the lights for families in Puerto Rico can get to work.”

Congressional Democrats have repeatedly called for the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General to probe whether Zinke played any role in the matter, and the office said it is examining the request.

In Zinke’s Friday statement, he said he’d welcome such a probe.

“I welcome any and all investigations into these allegations, and encourage the Interior Department’s Inspector General to investigate this matter fully.”