On Saturday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that he will be stepping down in January, one day before Democrats are set to take control of the House. Zinke faced at least 15 investigations into his unethical behavior, from taxpayer-funded travel with his wife to his role in a questionable real-estate deal with the energy company Halliburton.
Zinke may have timed his departure to avoid facing scrutiny from the next Congress, but American Oversight’s investigation isn’t going anywhere.
Zinke’s ties to energy, oil, and other industry groups shaped Interior policies. During his tenure at the agency, he worked to reduce the size of national monuments, opened up almost all U.S. coastal waters to offshore drilling, and was involved in a real-estate deal associated with Halliburton.
Senior staff calendars obtained by American Oversight revealed a meeting with an energy company CEO that was not previously released to the public, and reports surfaced in September that he spoke at a Louisiana Oil and Gas Association event. We’re still waiting on Zinke’s own calendars, as well as information about the LOGA event.
We’re also seeking a response to our Freedom of Information Act request for records of the department’s decision to classify uranium as a “critical mineral” even though it doesn’t meet the accepted definition. In light of reports that the uranium mining industry pressed the Trump administration to shrink the borders of the Bears Ears National Monument, there is concern that this could allow for mining in or around the monument or the Grand Canyon.
While many other states objected to Zinke’s plan to allow offshore drilling, he announced in January 2018, after an impromptu meeting with Governor Rick Scott, that Florida would be exempt from the drilling plan. American Oversight sued to learn more about Florida’s preferential treatment and whether the decision was a political favor to boost Scott’s re-election campaign. We obtained records of these communications.
Zinke faced scrutiny for his involvement in a land deal in Montana between a foundation Zinke established and the chairman of Halliburton. American Oversight sued with Western Values Project to uncover ties between Zinke and Halliburton, and we’re still waiting on those records.
Zinke doesn’t just favor industry groups — he also favors his friends and hometown contacts. Most notably, he awarded a $300 million contract to restore electrical power in Puerto Rico to Whitefish Energy, a small Montana-based company with only two full-time employees. Even though the contract was eventually canceled, we still want answers.
Zinke also put a high school football teammate with limited experience in charge of Interior’s grant review process, which also funds climate change research. We submitted a FOIA and are waiting to find out more about whether political connections played a role in that appointment. The secretary and his wife have also arranged VIP tours for their friends of National Park Service sites. Even though this occurred in past administrations, reports surfaced that Zinke and his aides have spent a disproportionate amount of time organizing these tours. We’re still waiting for records to shed light on how prevalent they were.
Those who are not favorable toward Zinke’s political allies have faced consequences at the agency. Interior reportedly reassigned several agency officials for political reasons, including Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Dan Wenk for decisions he made that were objected to by the Montana Group and the United Property Owners of Montana, both of which had ties to Zinke. We’re asking for agency communications with these groups to determine if the reassignments were politically motivated — retaliation is a pattern the administration and we’re going to continue to investigate.
Zinke was yet another cabinet official who spent taxpayer dollars on questionable travel and unnecessary office decorations. Zinke’s travels include $12,000 chartered flights to his hometown, with his wife, Lola Zinke, tagging along on many of the trips. It was also reported that the couple spent $25,000 on a security detail. Along with Western Values Project, we sued to find out more about Lola Zinke’s involvement in the department and obtained records of her participation in official government travel.
We also obtained Zinke’s office renovation expenses, which show that he and his agency spent considerable time and energy obtaining and hanging bison, deer, and bear heads in the his office. We still have questions about those animal heads, which were loaned by Zinke’s friends from Montana.
Zinke may be on his way out the door, but we’re not done investigating at Interior — and we’ve already started investigating Zinke’s likely replacement, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former oil and gas industry lobbyist who the Washington Post describes as having “so many potential conflicts of interest he has to carry a small card listing them all.”
Part of Investigation: