Energy & Environment

House flip creates big headache for Zinke

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Less than 24 hours after Republicans lost their House majority, Democrats vowed to take Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to task for a number of questionable actions and business deals, including one that’s under investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

When the new Congress starts Jan. 3, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee will, for the first time since Zinke took office in March 2017, have the authority to compel him and others at the Interior Department to testify and provide records.

{mosads}Their newfound power — and zeal to sniff out potential corruption after what they characterize as a dereliction of oversight duties by the GOP — is likely to make life even more difficult for the embattled Interior secretary as Democrats look for potentially embarrassing or incriminating records that could help thwart President Trump’s agenda.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee who’s likely to wield the chairman’s gavel next year, is already promising to probe a controversial business deal that a foundation Zinke established struck with the chairman of oil services company Halliburton, as well as a failed administration attempt to replace the top official in Interior’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) with a political appointee.

The announcement to replace the top agency watchdog came after the watchdog referred an investigation into Zinke to the DOJ.

The timing “can’t be dismissed as merely a coincidence,” Grijalva told Bloomberg on Wednesday. “That’s why the oversight is so necessary.”

Environmental groups are also pushing Democrats to be aggressive in overseeing the former Montana congressman. They’re seeking answers on policy decisions at the department, such as weakening Endangered Species Act protections, shrinking national monument boundaries and sending U.S. Park Police officers to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Our overall impression is that there is an opportunity here for Congress to hold him accountable in a way that he hasn’t before,” Chris Saeger, executive director at the Western Values Project, told The Hill. “I think he has done enough to have a legitimate conversation about whether or not he should be fired, but until that happens, I think Congress should have the power it had all along to bring to light the motive behind his decisions.”

Kevin Curtis, executive director of the NRDC Action Fund, the campaign arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he thinks Zinke is in trouble.

“There’s 17, 18 investigations. Let’s have House chairmen step up and committees step up and really dig deep there,” Curtis told reporters.

Zinke is facing a handful of investigations from Interior’s OIG and elsewhere into his compliance with ethics rules.

The OIG recently referred its probe into the deal with Halliburton Chairman David Lesar to the Justice Department for potential prosecution.

Zinke is also under investigation for an American Indian casino in Connecticut he declined to approve after lobbying by a competitor, and for his role in redrawing a national monument’s boundaries in Utah in a manner that benefited a state lawmaker.

The OIG, led by deputy inspector general Mary Kendall, recently found that Zinke violated department policies when he let his wife travel in government vehicles. Investigators cleared him of wrongdoing in a probe looking into his travel on private aircraft and found that Zinke’s staff didn’t keep sufficient records to show if he acted properly when re-assigning senior career staff last year.

How Zinke handles the new scrutiny from House Democrats will likely dictate how Grijalva and the committee move forward.

“One is to acknowledge that the world has changed and that they have to be more transparent and share documents and be more open to oversight from the Hill,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a former top aide to former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who served from 2009 to 2013. “Or they can be very standoffish, and I think that could result in, very quickly, an escalation of oversight to subpoenas and some very painful hearings for senior leaders at the Interior.”

“I imagine that’s what the Interior Department is wrestling with today,” he added.

Lee-Ashley worked for Salazar when the GOP took back the House majority in 2011 and unleashed a multitude of oversight requests on the Obama administration. He said the House’s authority over the department will be heavily felt by the Cabinet secretary.

“It forces a change of posture with respect to the Hill, and the same decisions that Secretary Zinke and his team are facing now about how to handle the oversight was something that Secretary Salazar dealt with too,” Lee-Ashley said. “The strategy taken was to do as much as possible to be responsive to the oversight interests of Congress.”

But Congress’s plans could be cut short if Trump decides to remove Zinke from the post before they can get to them.

Trump dismissed Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday after saying there could be Cabinet shake-ups in the near future. He didn’t rule out removing Zinke and said he’ll know more soon.

“I think he’s doing an excellent job,” Trump said at a White House news conference. But as to the allegations against him, “we’re looking at that, and I do want to study whatever is being said … we will probably have an idea about that in about a week.”

The White House is not pleased with the Justice Department investigation into Zinke and looking to force him out, The Washington Post reported last week. That, and the Democrats’ wins on Tuesday, has fueled speculation that Zinke could soon resign, following in the footsteps of former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Staff on the House Natural Resources Committee are aware of the likelihood that Zinke could be replaced and are focusing their efforts accordingly. Seeing the vultures swirling around Zinke, they know they may not have to plan anything elaborate for the Interior head.

“The ranking member has already said that if Secretary Zinke is on the job next year, he’ll be called to testify on the DOJ referral and the unusual inspector general maneuvers,” a senior staffer told The Hill.

Tags Donald Trump Jeff Sessions Ryan Zinke Scott Pruitt Tom Price
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