Overnight Energy: Interior chief could face months-long DOJ probe | Agencies to 'encourage' tree burning for energy | Watchdog finds Gettysburg park chief broke ethics rules

Overnight Energy: Interior chief could face months-long DOJ probe | Agencies to 'encourage' tree burning for energy | Watchdog finds Gettysburg park chief broke ethics rules
© Greg Nash

ZINKE COULD FACE MONTHS-LONG JUSTICE INVESTIGATION: Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Zinke, Lewandowski join Trump veterans’ lobbying firm Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? MORE could be facing a months-long investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) now that his agency's internal watchdog has referred one of its probes to the DOJ.

The investigation, which is expected to focus on a personal real estate deal Zinke made with Halliburton Co. Chairman David Lesar, according to The New York Times, sets the stage for a comprehensive review of the former Montana lawmaker's business ties.

Interior's Office of the Inspector General (IG) referred one of its investigations into Zinke to the DOJ more than two weeks ago. The specific nature of the investigation into Zinke has not been made public, and DOJ is not commenting on the matter.

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Public integrity law experts said that if the probe ends up focusing on business transactions, that would likely involve criminal conflict-of-interest statutes that prohibit federal employees from participating "personally and substantially" in decisions in which they or a relative have a financial interest.

"The conflict-of-interest statute requires a very high level of criminal intent," said one attorney who formerly worked in DOJ's Public Integrity Section, the office that generally deals with federal ethics cases. "You have to prove that he knew he was violating the law."

Violators of the conflict-of-interest law can face up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine per violation.

In June, Politico reported that Zinke and his wife were part of an investment that he initially proposed in 2012. 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 is playing a key role in the plans.

Read more here.

 

Happy Birthday Ryan Zinke!!:

November 1 marks the Interior secretary's birthday. He celebrated with a surprise performance by the musical team at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. Others used Zinke's big day to remind the public about recent reports that the DOJ is considering an investigation into him. Environmental action group Friends of the Earth, protested outside the Interior Department's Washington, D.C. headquarters today with a paper-mache life-size mask of Zinke. One tweet from the group read: Enjoy your birthday at @Interior, Ryan Zinke! It may be your last one here... #FireZinke

 

In other Cabinet secretary news...

What's EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's favorite candy?: Well it's not 100 Grand bars. He tells The Hill's Tim Cama via Twitter that he's a big plain M&M fan.

 

Happy Thursday!  Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill's roundup of the latest energy and environment news.

Please send tips and comments to Timothy Cama, tcama@thehill.com, and Miranda Green, mgreen@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @Timothy_Cama, @mirandacgreen, @thehill.

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TRUMP OFFICIALS TO ENCOURAGE TREE BURNING FOR ENERGY: Three federal agencies said Thursday that they're working to embrace burning trees and other biomass to create energy in a "carbon-neutral" way.

The heads of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Energy (DOE) sent a letter to Congress outlining how they are carrying out a mandate from a law passed earlier this year to ensure that policies "reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source."

"EPA, USDA, and DOE will encourage the use of biomass as an energy solution, striving for consistency across federal policies and programs," the agencies' leaders said in the letter.

"Working together, the agencies can tap their respective expertise in harnessing the energy potential of this country, and their experience in protecting the environment and working with foresters, farmers and other land owners."

Labeling wood burning as environmentally friendly is at odds with environmental groups and some scientists, who say that the process of creating electricity, steam or other energy forms from wood releases all of the carbon dioxide that the trees had previously removed from the atmosphere.

William Schlesinger, a biogeochemist who used to lead the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, wrote in Science magazine earlier this year that burning wood is likely a net negative for the environment.

Read more here.

 

GETTYSBURG PARK CHIEF VIOLATED ETHICS RULES WHEN ACCEPTING 23K FLIGHTS: The former head of Gettysburg National Military Park accepted over $23,000 in travel vouchers and gifts from a private, non-government organization over the course of two years, actions a government watchdog is calling criminal.

Ed Clark, who served as superintendent of the park until last year, additionally violated ethics rules by soliciting funds on behalf of the private Gettysburg Foundation, according to a report released by the Department of Interior Inspector General's Office on Thursday.

The inspector general found that Clark solicited the funds in a non-official "liaison to the foundation" role that included hosting a foundation-funded dinner for his government employees.

The watchdog investigation, which started in September 2016 following an anonymous complaint, found that Clark traveled 27 times to attend events organized by the foundation between February 2014 and October 2016.

Clark did not seek ethics approval prior to taking each foundation-paid trip and often flew on a private jet, which is a violation of federal law, the report noted. Additionally, he allegedly covered his tracks by submitting false travel vouchers on the cost of the trips.

One example highlighted in the report was a $400 cost estimate Clark submitted for flying on the private plane owned by a construction company frequently used by the foundation. The inspector general's own estimate of the costs of the plane travel was over $7,000. The four trips he took were also estimated to have cost the company $13,762.

The report additionally found that Clark accepted meals and other gifts from the foundation as compensation for his services. On a number of occasions Clark also requested and pocketed full per diem reimbursement for meals and travel from the National Park Service (NPS) on the days the foundation paid for those services.

Worth noting: The inspector general's office referred the investigation to U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, but it declined to prosecute Clark.

OUTSIDE THE BELTWAY:

A new solar farm is coming to the California desert, with the Trump administration's blessing

Vet for Tampa zoo accused of killing manatees through malpractice

Thousands of radiated tortoises seized from traffickers in Madagascar

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT:

Check out Thursday's stories ...

-Trump administration promises to 'encourage' tree burning for energy

-Watchdog: Gettysburg park chief violated ethics rules, accepted $23K in vouchers

-Environmental group adds $20 million more investment to midterm elections

-Dems accuse Energy Department of 'failure' to follow efficiency law

-Newark residents outraged after testing reveals lead contamination in water

-Zinke could face months-long Justice investigation