Watchdog to probe Zinke over land deal in his hometown with oil exec

Watchdog to probe Zinke over land deal in his hometown with oil exec
© Greg Nash

The Interior Department's inspector general (IG) is investigating reports of a financial partnership between Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog | Ag secretary orders environmental rollbacks for Forest Service | Senate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Senior Interior official contacted former employer, violating ethics pledge: watchdog Overnight Energy: Trump officials may pursue offshore drilling after election, report says | Energy regulators to delay projects pending appeals | EPA union calls for 'moratorium' on reopening plans MORE and the head of a prominent oil services giant, it confirmed Wednesday.

The watchdog will look into reports, first broken by Politico in mid June, that Zinke and Halliburton Chairman David Lesar are tied to a commercial real estate development deal in Whitefish, Mont., Zinke's hometown.

The investigation comes at the behest of Democratic Reps. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinHouse Democrats seek to codify environmental inequality mapping tool  House coronavirus bill aims to prevent utility shutoffs OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Oil prices jump amid partial reopenings | Bill aims to block fossil fuel firms from coronavirus aid | Tribes to receive some coronavirus aid after court battle MORE (Va.) and Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanHouse members race to prepare for first-ever remote votes Overnight Energy: Biden campaign says he would revoke Keystone XL permit | EPA emails reveal talks between Trump officials, chemical group before 2017 settlement | Tensions emerge on Natural Resources panel over virtual meetings Tensions emerge on Natural Resources panel over virtual meetings MORE (Calif.), who jointly urged the IG to look into the matter following reports that Zinke and his family could financially benefit from the deal with the oil executive.

In their joint letter sent to the IG's office last Thursday, the members unearthed emails showing that Zinke met with Lesar and his son as well as Montana developer Casey Malmquist at his Interior offices on August 3, 2017.

The deal was approved by the Whitefish City Council in January 2018.

The letter asked the watchdog to investigate whether Zinke had illegally used his official resources at secretary for personal gain.

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"Though he has claimed that he is no longer involved with the foundation, he continues to be involved with the fate of the foundation's land, which was originally donated more than a decade ago to be a veteran's peace park," the letter read.

The project, a large commercial development on a former industrial site, is largely backed by a group funded by Lesar, and a foundation established by Zinke called the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation donated a significant portion of land for the project.

While Zinke has stepped down as president and cut ties from the group since becoming Interior secretary, his wife now leads the organization and his daughter is on the board.

A letter provided to the Hill from a representative of the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation confirmed that Zinke resigned last year and says that the group's annual report "inadvertently" failed to remove him as director. 

Financial disclosure forms show that Lesar and his wife have had long political ties to the Zinkes. In 2014 they gave $10,400 to Zinke’s first congressional campaign, the maximum legal amount, Politico reported.

The proposed development will include a spa, retail shops and a brewery, according to plans obtained and confirmed through Whitefish city planner David Taylor to Politico. Whitefish is a town popular for its ski resort and its proximity to Glacier National Park.