Energy & Environment

Interior IG finds Trump secretary Zinke broke ethics rules

The Interior Department’s inspector general (IG) found that former Secretary Ryan Zinke, who served under President Trump, broke ethics rules while leading the department. 

The IG said in a report released Wednesday that Zinke “failed to abide by his ethics obligations” and “misused his public office for private gain.”

The IG said its office referred the case to the Department of Justice (DOJ) last summer but the DOJ under the Biden administration had declined to prosecute a case against Zinke, who is now running for a U.S. House seat in Montana. 

Zinke had resigned from his role with a foundation that he and others had established, called the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation, upon being confirmed as secretary and pledged in May 2017 not to participate “personally and substantially” in any matter involving it for a year, according to the report. 

But the report said Zinke played an “extensive, direct, and substantive role” in representing the foundation in its negotiations over a commercial development project, called the 95 Karrow project. 

It cited 64 emails and text messages from Aug. 21, 2017, through July 30, 2018, in which Zinke “communicated directly with the developers.”

It also said he held at least one in-person meeting in his office on Aug. 3, 2017, after which Zinke gave the developers a personal tour of the Lincoln Memorial and ate dinner with them. 

It further accused Zinke of having Interior Department staff arrange the office and dinner meeting and said that at some point during the trip, the developers gave Zinke a plan for the parking lot, which was a significant point of negotiations. 

In another instance, Zinke forwarded emails from the developers to his executive and special assistants, and his staff printed information for him, according to the report. 

A department ethics official questioned Zinke about his role with the foundation in July 2018 and Zinke “violated his duty of candor when he knowingly provided materially incorrect, incomplete, and misleading answers,” the report said. 

The IG said Zinke claimed the developers wanted to meet with him on a “purely social basis” and said that he “made it clear” that he resigned from the foundation’s board and no longer represented it. 

In a statement, Zinke’s campaign described the report as a  “political hit job.”

“The report is totally subjective and admitted they released it because their conclusions were too flimsy and biased for DOJ to even consider,” the campaign said. 

The campaign also said investigators “didn’t even bother” to talk to Zinke or others who were allegedly involved. This contradicts the report, which says that through their attorneys Zinke, his wife and the 95 Karrow project developers, declined the watchdog’s request for an interview. 

The IG’s office said it was able to get the emails and text messages, which showed that “Secretary Zinke repeatedly communicated with the developers of the 95 Karrow project and negotiated with them on behalf of the Foundation by discussing the use of Foundation property for the project, specific design aspects of the project, and the development of a microbrewery,” by subpoenaing the developers. 

Some environmental advocacy groups, meanwhile, questioned the Biden administration’s decision not to prosecute.

“It’s unfortunate that Attorney General Garland declined to pursue a criminal case against Secretary Zinke,” said Center for Western Priorities executive director Jennifer Rokala in a statement. 

“Even though Trump is no longer in office, the Justice Department has an obligation to hold his administration accountable when cabinet secretaries flout the law and their ethics pledges.”

A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment. 

While the new report represents an official government confirmation of the events, a meeting between Zinke and the developers at the department headquarters has been previously reported in the media. 

Zinke resigned from the department in late 2018 amid accusations of violating ethics rules.

Updated 2:34 p.m.

Tags Donald Trump Ryan Zinke

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