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 ZinkeInterior gains new watchdog The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks BLM issues final plan for reduced Utah monument 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 McEachinRacial politics roil Democratic Party CBC lawmakers rip Justice Democrats for targeting black lawmakers for primaries Harris hops past Biden in early race for Black Caucus support MORE (Va.) and Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanThe Hill's Morning Report - Pompeo condemns Iran for 'act of war' while Trump moves with caution Democrats bicker over strategy on impeachment Overnight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year 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.