When former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke left the administration at the end of 2018, his penchant for arranging VIP tours of national parks for his friends and allies was just another strike in a long list of ethics concerns trailing him. Now, new documents obtained by American Oversight reveal further examples of how Interior officials under Zinke worked to arrange VIP tours for Trump administration allies — even fielding a request from Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts for a special tour of a privately owned museum.
The emails add to previous reporting from the Washington Post and others about Zinke’s misuse of his position, and reveal new instances in which the line between extending courtesies to notable figures and abusing agency privileges may have been crossed.
The documents show that high-ranking Interior Department officials repeatedly directed National Park Service Congressional Liaison Elaine Hackett to assist in planning excursions for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue; White House counselor Kellyanne Conway; friends of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; Greg Tabish, owner of Montana-based Great Western Petroleum; and Matthew Shuman, legislative director of the American Legion. The requests also included private tours with Zinke, a tour for Rudy Giuliani’s son, and visits to the West Wing.
Interior Department employees even raised concerns about the ethical standing of certain requests made by the senior staff. On June 1, 2017, following a request from Rusty Roddy, Zinke’s chief of scheduling, Hackett emailed Sonja Hanson, the acting director of communications and external affairs at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, for tickets to Alcatraz Island. Hanson appeared concerned about the ethics of obtaining tickets outside the concessioner: “Is this an advance team for an official visit or a tour for personal reasons? If it’s personal visit, we are specifically prohibited by law from soliciting or accepting gifts from a prohibited source due to ethics laws. The boats to/from the island are under a concessioner and not under the control of NPS.” Hanson provided information about the concessioner Alcatraz Cruises and recommended that Hackett contact them directly.
Likewise, on Aug. 2, 2017, Hackett forwarded to Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk an email from Aurelia Skipwith, then the deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, who was seeking a tour guide for her family on a visit to the park. In her email, Skipwith appeared to suggest the attendance of a National Park Service biologist with whom she had spoken during a previous visit.
Wenk responded that it would not be appropriate to “redirect a senior biologist” out for a tour with Skipwith’s family, noting that “it would not play well if the press ever found out.”
That same summer, Hackett worked to assist the staff of Tom Ricketts, the Chicago Cubs chairman and brother of Todd Ricketts, the finance chair of the Republican National Committee. On July 10, 2017, Ricketts’s executive assistant emailed Hackett about setting up a “private tour” of the September 11 Memorial & Museum for “Tom and family” the coming weekend. Private tours of the memorial can be requested by the general public by calling a telephone number, but Hackett agreed to help, writing, “The 9-11 Museum is private, however, NPS has a contact there, so I will reach out for the Rickett’s family.”
Hackett emailed Joshua Laird, the commissioner of the National Parks of New York Harbor, to see if a private tour could be arranged. Laird responded that he had left a message with Jay Weinkam, the executive vice president of government and community affairs at the memorial, and said that he knew “a couple of Board members” if Weinkam didn’t respond.
“I know Tom Ricketts will appreciate everything you are doing!” Hackett replied.
The next day, Hackett emailed Ricketts’s executive assistant, Lorraine Swiatly, and said that Laird and Weinkam were both happy to set up a private tour. “It’s an honor to assist such a amazing family!” Hackett wrote.
Two months later, Hackett emailed Swiatly about the Cubs and the Washington Nationals facing off in the playoffs the next week. Hackett offered to arrange for the Ricketts family “a tour underneath the Lincoln Memorial” led by Zinke.
Another instance in which Interior Department staff were asked to organize VIP tours for people outside the government took place in September 2017, when then-Chief of Staff Scott Hommel asked Hackett to arrange tours for Brian Gray, a president of construction company Knife River Corporation. Gray explained that he planned to bring along his family and three of his “associated general contractors.” He said that most of the party had visited Washington, D.C., several times before, but a “behind the scenes” guided tour and a visit to the secretary’s office “would add a different twist.”
Gray also added: “Scott may have mentioned to you, but I work with Dave Zinke at Knife River!! … Any help you can provide would be very much appreciated.”
Greg Tabish, owner of Western Petroleum, and Matthew Shuman, legislative director of the American Legion, had also made requests. In March 2017, Amanda Kaster-Averill, an Interior Department political appointee who had previously worked on Secretary Zinke’s congressional staff, forwarded Hackett a request an aide to Sen. Steve Daines, inquiring about a “Secretary Tour” for Tabish. Kaster-Averill clarified that Tabish was simply asking for a VIP tour, not a tour led by Zinke.
Matthew Shuman, director of the legislative division of the American Legion, acquired tickets to a Reba McEntire concert at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts after Hackett put him on a waiting list in June 2018. Shuman expressed his gratitude in an email to Hackett the next month: “You are so incredible and Sec. Zinke is beyond lucky to have you on his team. If ever I can repay the favor, please consider me forever in your debt.”
Trump administration officials, including Betsy DeVos and Kellyanne Conway, also benefited from NPS resources. In April 2017, Hommel asked Hackett to plan a tour for “friends of Secretary DeVos.” Hackett emailed DeVos’s Chief of Staff Joshua Venable, Confidential Assistant to the Secretary Sarah Delahunty, and Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Dougie Simmons and asked for information about the visit, with suggestions of arrangements she could make for the secretary.
Similarly, in July 2017, after learning from Hommel that Conway and her family were planning to visit several national parks, Hackett emailed Renee Hudson, chief of staff for Conway’s office, to discuss the trip. A ranger-guided tour of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser and Geyser Hill were confirmed a few weeks later.
At the “recommendation of Secretary Zinke,” Secretary Perdue received help from Interior staff in planning personal family trips. In October 2018, Perdue spoke with Hackett about receiving assistance in building an itinerary for a family visit to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone during the winter.
The inquiry left staff scrambling over logistics for the family because of the difficulty in making reservations so late in the season, but they provided Hackett with different winter program and activity packages.
Perdue had employed the aid of Interior Department employees to arrange a family trip the year before as well. In September 2017, officials responded to a request from Perdue for “a list of places he should hit” when his family visited Great Falls Park the next day. Caroline Boulton, the special assistant to the interior secretary, also said that Perdue wanted someone to “show them around for the first part of their visit.”
After Zinke’s departure, former oil and gas lobbyist David Bernhardt was confirmed as secretary. Bernhardt, who had previously served as acting secretary, had been the subject of an Interior Department inspector general review following allegations of ethics violations, and was at the center of news about a suppressed report on the impacts of pesticides on health and endangered species. He has also come under scrutiny for his list of former clients and industry ties — a list so long he initially had to carry a card of his many conflicts of interest. American Oversight continues to investigate both Bernhardt’s communications with his former clients as well as the president’s pattern of appointing those who prove to be more interested in reaping the benefits of their offices than in serving the American people.
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