The former chief executive and current chair of oil giant Halliburton, David Lesar, is working on a commercial development project involving Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Halliburton stands to benefit from any decisions made by Zinke to open up public lands for oil and gas drilling.
First revealed by Politico, Zinke and his wife Lola are tied to a multimillion-dollar real estate project involving Halliburton that is being developed in the secretary’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana. A foundation established by Zinke and now headed by his wife is “providing crucial assistance” to the project Politico reports.
Halliburton’s Lesar is providing financial backing to the project’s hotel and retail development. The project would also include a microbrewery, first proposed by Zinke in 2012 and which, according to a Whitefish city planner, may potentially be set aside for the Zinkes to own and operate. A plot of land next door, owned by Zinke, could see an increase in value once the real estate project is finished.
The relationship between the Zinkes and Halliburton’s Lesar raises serious ethics questions as the secretary clearly stands to benefit financially should his land become more valuable as a result of the project. In addition, Halliburton has permission to develop land donated to Zinke’s foundation, entering a space where the oil giant and the Zinkes could potentially be viewed as business partners.
“That Halliburton’s chairman would almost be a business partner of Zinke or his wife, he would have to recuse himself from anything involving Halliburton,” Marilyn Glynn told Politico. Glynn, who was acting director of the Office of Government Ethics under former President George W. Bush, called the relationship inappropriate.
Under ethics rules, executive branch officials like Zinke must recuse themselves from decision making that involves people or companies they have a close financial relationship with in order to avoid conflicts of interest.
Zinke, as head of the Interior Department, is ultimately responsible for overseeing more than 500 million acres of public lands, as well as setting technical and safety standards for pipelines and drilling that oil companies must abide by.
Halliburton is one of the world’s biggest fracking companies. It is also the country’s largest oil-services company. It helps drill wells and build rigs — infrastructure critical to the extraction of fossil fuels and regulated by the Interior Department. As Politico reports, the company has met repeatedly with agency officials to discuss fracking policies. And last year, under Zinke’s leadership, the agency repealed Obama-era rules that restricted fracking on federal lands.
Lesar, who stepped down as Halliburton’s chief executive last year, has a longtime relationship with the Zinkes. In 2014, he and his wife donated $10,400 — the maximum amount allowed by law — to Zinke’s first congressional campaign.
The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment by ThinkProgress.
The Halliburton connection isn’t the first time the Zinkes have found themselves at the center of accusations of ethical misconduct.
Last year, Lola Zinke sparked questions about whether she was using her husband’s new government position to gain access to powerful Republicans. Working as a Republican Party activist and consultant, Lola reportedly asked department staff to invite certain guests to an event hosted by the right-wing Young America’s Foundation where Zinke was slated to speak.
When Zinke was nominated to his position he failed to disclose that he holds shares in a private Montana manufacturer and seller of firearms and advanced weapons material. A leadership PAC previously affiliated with Zinke is also under investigation by the Federal Election Commission for financial discrepancies.
Last September, following Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico awarded a $300 million contract to a tiny Montana company, Whitefish Energy Holdings, to reconstruct a large portion of the island’s electrical infrastructure. The company’s chief executive has a personal relationship Zinke. The deal eventually fell through two months later after coming under intense scrutiny.
In March, it was revealed that the Interior Department spent $139,000 on a secure door for the secretary. Zinke and four other department staffers also spent $12,000 to fly a private plane from Las Vegas to Montana last June — a decision an internal watchdog said was approved by ethics officials without sufficient information. Zinke’s trip to Vegas was to give a speech to the Golden Knights hockey team, owned by one of his wealthiest campaign donors.
Zinke also billed taxpayers more than $6,000 for a helicopter trip he took last year to horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence. Zinke called criticisms that his expensive flights were a misuse of taxpayer money “a wild departure from reality.”