An internal watchdog for the Interior Department released a report Wednesday revealing repeated lapses of ethical behavior by Ryan Zinke, the department’s former secretary under Donald Trump.
Zinke broke federal ethics rules on more than one occasion by participating in real estate negotiations with developers, as well as with the chairman of energy behemoth Halliburton, according to the report. The communications pertained to a commercial and residential development in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, that used land from the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation, which Zinke and others established in 2007. Zinke continued to take part in these negotiations, according to investigators, even after telling federal officials he would resign from the foundation.
Zinke also lied to an Interior Department ethics official when questioned about his role in the negotiations, the report found. Despite saying his involvement was minimal and limited in scope, subpoenaed records show Zinke actually communicated with the developers via text and email 64 times over the span of a year. He met with them in his Washington, D.C., office, as well.
Inspector General Mark Greenblatt also concluded that Zinke “misused his official position in violation of Federal regulations” when he directed his staff to set up a meeting with the developers.
While the report found that Zinke broke ethics rules, it did not find that the former secretary violated federal conflict-of-interest laws or used his position to specifically benefit Halliburton or for his own financial gain. Nor did it find that his staff tried to hide their boss’ involvement with the developers. Prosecutors declined to press charges last summer.
The matter was referred to the Justice Department in the fall of 2018, and by December, Zinke had resigned. The Whitefish scandal had a large role in his decision, but he was also facing five active federal investigations at the time. During his tenure, there were a total of 15 probes into his actions. Yet in a private resignation letter, The Washington Post reported, Zinke blamed “vicious and politically motivated attacks” for his ouster, saying he could not “justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations.”
Zinke, who was a congressman before joining Trump’s Cabinet, is again running for Congress, and has Trump’s endorsement. His campaign released a statement calling the Inspector General’s report “a political hit job,” according to the Associated Press.
Zinke’s tenure as Interior Secretary, which lasted from March 2017 to January 2019 was marred by actions that seemed to run counter to the department’s mission. Zinke gutted the Endangered Species Act, opened up off-shore drilling, and shrunk national monuments — all while grumbling about “environmental radicals.”
Zinke is one of several Trump Cabinet officials to be mired in ethical violations, joining former EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, former Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, former Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and others.