By David Halperin, crossposted from Republic Report
A Westerner appointed to President Trump’s cabinet, he’s drawn attention for his penchant for expensive travel, vanity perquisites of office, abuse of agency staff time, and cozy personal financial deals with business executives whose industries he oversees. Meanwhile, he has denied the dangers of climate change, met extensively with corporate lobbyists, and gutted the environmental protections implemented by prior administrations.
Yes, that’s entitled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, whose record of seeking personal luxuries and advantages at taxpayer expense, while gearing policy to polluting industries, and punishing subordinates who object, is breathtakingly awful.
But it also pretty well describes Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke.
The latest Zinke outrage is a stunning investigative report in Politico about a development deal in which Zinke stands to benefit financially by leveraging land that was donated to a charitable foundation he established and is now run by his wife, Lola. The proposed tourist development, in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, is funded by David Lesar, chairman (and, until last year, CEO) of the huge oil services company Halliburton. Lesar is a Zinke friend and contributor to his 2014 House campaign.
Halliburton is in line to gain extensive revenues from Zinke’s actions at Interior to expand drilling on public lands and offshore. The company’s top lobbyist has regularly met with Zinke’s Interior Department to discuss issues like hydraulic fracturing, and last year Zinke blocked Obama administration rules that curbed fracking on federal lands. Zinke, in a speech last September to an oil industry group, praised fracking, which has poisoned the water in communities across the U.S. and poses risks of gas leaks and increased global warming.
“Fracking,” he said, “is proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us.”
According to the Politico report, Lola Zinke has signed a letter of intent to allow the Whitefish project developer to construct a parking lot on land that was donated to the Zinkes’ foundation for a “Veterans Peace Park.” Meanwhile, Whitefish’s city manager said the project developers “certainly implied that they were working with [Zinke] to find a place” in the development for a microbrewery that the Zinkes would operate. The Zinkes also own land adjacent to the development that could increase in value if the project goes forward.
Marilyn Glynn, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics under George W. Bush, told Politico that the development deal crossed ethical lines and at a minimum required Zinke to recuse from matters involving Halliburton. “In a previous administration, whether Bush or Obama, you’d never run across something like this,” she said. “Nobody would be engaging in business deals” with people whose companies were regulated by their own department. Zinke did not respond to Politico’s questions about the relationship with Lesar.
If the apparent corruption in this real estate deal isn’t bad enough — the Zinkes stand to make money off a deal backed by an executive of a major corporation that is seeking, and reaping, benefits from Zinke’s department — it’s echoed in the troubling manner in which their foundation acquired the land in the first place. Freight railroad giant BNSF Railway had donated the land to the Zinke foundation for the veterans park; soon after that, Zinke won his election for state senate and then voted for a bill that would have aided BNSF by directing millions in state funding to railroad construction.
But the whole tawdry episode is merely a small piece of the tapestry of sleazy behavior that has characterized Zinke both before and after he took the oath to be interior secretary.
There has been so much more.
Zinke has been active in funneling money to scam political committees that rip off elderly donors by taking their money and then mostly keeping it for executive and consultant salaries. One of those committees set up by Zinke, Special Operations for America, appealed to donors for funding to attack President Obama in 2012 for taking credit for killing Osama bin Laden. But Federal Election Commission reports revealed that only $7,000 of the $180,000 raised by the PAC that year was spent on influencing the election. Meanwhile, the PAC doled out almost $40,000 for consulting and travel expenses to a corporation set up by Ryan and Lola Zinke.
In March 2017, after joining Trump’s cabinet, Zinke attended a fundraiser on St. Croix for Virgin Islands GOP PAC, a group that has raised $5.7 million since it launched in February 2015 but has spent only $76,000 on congressional candidates, including $3,500 to Zinke’s campaign and Zinke’s own SEAL PAC.
The Federal Election Commission is now probing SEAL PAC for a range of troubling irregularities, including large spending on direct mail and discrepancies in reporting.
Scott Homell and Vincent DeVito, who worked for, respectively, Special Operations for America and SEAL PAC, are now two of Zinke’s top aides at Interior.
As Secretary, Zinke has repeatedly used private charter planes, including a $12,375 charter flight from Las Vegas to Whitefish on a plane owned by fossil fuel company executives, and charters between Caribbean islands ― all on routes where commercial flights were available. The Department’s inspector general probed Zinke’s June 2017 Las Vegas trip, during which he delivered a pep talk to the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team, owned by Whitefish resident and major Zinke donor Bill Foley, and then charged taxpayers for the charter to Montana; they found that the Knights had offered to reschedule the talk so he could book a commercial flight, but Zinke said, it’s cool, I’ll take the charter. Zinke didn’t disclose his relationship with Foley to ethics officials reviewing the trip; he also claimed that the speech to the Knights, which never mentioned Interior issues, made sense because he was doing a nearby meeting with county commissioners, but it turned out Zinke’s team booked that event only after the session with the Knights was set up.
Zinke also spent $14,000 in taxpayer money on helicopter rides in the DC area last summer so he could attend (1) the swearing-in of his head-butting congressional successor Greg Gianforte and (2) a horseback riding date with Vice President Pence.
And Zinke and Lola brought an Interior security detail along on their vacation last summer to Greece and Turkey.
Lola Zinke has reportedly been driving Interior staff nuts with her own extensive travel demands, such as last-minute requests to attend and add guests to conservative events.
Zinke and Lola also are using a lot of Interior staff time and money to book, for friends and supporters, VIP tours of those American monuments that they haven’t yet, at the behest of corporations, turned into uranium mines and oil drilling sites.
His staff said Zinke knew nothing about paying $139,000 for a door for his office (just as Pruitt says he didn’t know about the $43,000 cost of his soundproof booth).
Zinke has required his security staff to hoist a special secretarial flag on the Interior Department’s roof whenever he’s in the building, and to remove it when Zinke departs. In addition, as the Washington Post reported, “He has commissioned commemorative coins with his name on them to give to staff and visitors, but the cost to taxpayers is unclear.”
Zinke also has regularly used a personal email address to conduct Interior business, even though … you know: Obviously as a House member he attacked Hillary Clinton for doing just that.
Zinke reassigned many of Interior’s senior employees ― for example moving Interior’s chief climate policy expert to the royalty collection division — in moves that appeared punitive. (A Department inspector general investigation somehow concluded that because Department officials did not document their reasons for reassigning the employees or “gather the information needed to make informed decisions about the reassignments,” the IG could not determine whether or not officials complied with the law.) Zinke also named only political appointees, including several ex-industry lobbyists, to a Department committee on personnel issues, ignoring that career staff are supposed to be part of the process.
Zinke’s Whitefish friend/neighbor’s two-person company famously obtained a $300 million contract to repair Puerto Rico’s electrical infrastructure after Hurricane Maria.
On key policy issues, Zinke, who justifies his decisions to exploit public lands by speciously claiming to be a geologist, is doing the bidding of energy industry lobbyists — except in Montana, where he is protecting lands, perhaps with an eye to seeking higher office there. A conservative political group tied to Pence has this year been running corny, misleading campaign-style ads praising Zinke. (Zinke concealed as a congressman that he’d been living in California, not Montana.)
In addition to all the corrupt and self-aggrandizing behavior, there are other ways that Zinke is simply awful.
Prior to serving in Congress, Zinke, on a 2013 episode of his radio show, hosted a birther and raised questions about President Obama’s college records.
According to high-ranking Interior staff who spoke with CNN, Zinke has repeatedly stated that he won’t focus on staff diversity, saying things like “diversity isn’t important,” or “I don’t care about diversity,” or “I don’t really think that’s important anymore.” Of the 33 senior career staff Zinke reassigned, 15 were people of color.
After Callista Gingrich, Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican and wife of Trump crony Newt Gingrich, expressed her deep offense when she read that a statue of a nude person might be placed on the National Mall temporarily, Newt brought Callista’s concerns to Zinke. Days later, the National Park Service, which Zinke oversees, blocked the installation of the statue.
And Zinke, like Trump and Pruitt, has only hired the best people.
- Zinke staffer Christine Bauserman resigned after CNN documented inflammatory social media remarks she made about Muslims, African-Americans, LGBT people, and President Obama.
- A top Zinke aide, Douglas Domenech, took meetings with his previous employer, the Koch-connected Texas Public Policy Foundation, while it was engaged in a legal dispute with the department. Doing so possibly violated ethics rules. Adding to the sense that sense that something’s wrong here, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift, told The Guardian the meetings were “primarily social in nature,” even though Domenech’s calendar shows that the meetings concerned specific policy issues.
- Todd Wynn, another top Zinke lieutenant, also scheduled a number of meetings with representatives of his former industry group employers, again in possible violation of federal ethics rules.
- Zinke’s senior adviser Kathleen Benedetto, according to documents, held about twice as many meetings with mining and fossil-fuel companies as with environmental groups, and afterwards some of those companies benefited directly from Trump administration actions weakening public lands and wilderness protections.
- Indur Goklany, a career Interior employee who is connected to the climate-denying Heartland Institute and has said greenhouse gases are “good news,” was tasked by senior Interior officials early in the administration with rewriting the Department’s public positions on climate change.
- Scott Angelle, appointed under Trump to be Interior’s director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, has worked, at the urging of energy companies, to repeal Obama-era safety rules, including regulations issued after the deadly and costly Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico.
The parallels between the corrupt and ugly behavior of Zinke and of Pruitt are so plain, and the Trump administration is such a backstabbing disaster, that last month a Pruitt aide was caught trying to divert attention from Pruitt’s ethics debacle by dishing dirt on Zinke.
Like Pruitt, Zinke still has his job probably because he has slavishly worshipped two important masters, even above worshipping himself: the fossil fuel and mining executives who are big donors to the Republican Party, and, of course, the self-focused President Trump. Last September Zinke told an oil industry group that nearly one-third of Interior Department employees are not loyal to him and Trump. Maybe the secretary was on to something there: With the disgraceful record Zinke has compiled, who could blame them?