After less than two years on the job, outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will be leaving a legacy of pro-fossil fuel management of public lands and a long trail of alleged cases of personal misconduct.
Zinke announced his resignation over the weekend. His departure, though, will test the political will of investigators and congressional Democrats who must decide whether to continue pursuing inquiries into the allegations or focus on oversight of the actions of the new leadership at the Department of the Interior.
The timing of the former Montana congressman’s exit from Washington — at the end of this month — doesn’t appear to be a coincidence. Zinke will be resigning as Interior secretary only days before the Democrats obtain investigative oversight through their takeover of the House of Representatives in January 2019.
Zinke submitted his resignation to the White House on Saturday, facing intense pressure to step down because of multiple probes tied to his real estate dealings in his home state of Montana and his conduct in office.
The most serious charge against Zinke could be a Justice Department examination of a real estate deal in Montana involving Zinke’s family and a development group backed by David Lesar, chairman of oil field services company Halliburton.
One of the top policy targets of House Democrats will be Zinke’s handling of the shrinking of two national monuments in Utah. When he takes control of the House Natural Resources Committee next month, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) will have significantly greater powers to investigate the Trump administration’s controversial decision to decimate the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
Adam Sarvana, Grijalva’s spokesman on the House Natural Resources Committee, told ThinkProgress on Monday that the committee intends to continue oversight of Zinke’s policy decisions: “How they were arrived and who he spoke to before he made them, especially on questions like the destruction of the Utah monuments and the opening of public lands to major fossil fuel extraction.”
The House Natural Resources Committee does not intend to duplicate the efforts of the Department of Justice and the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, which are primarily focused on Zinke’s alleged personal misconduct.
“Our job is to conduct policy oversight and we’re not going to stop just because he leaves office,” Sarvana said. “We can’t dance around it. We need to hear from him. So, we’re going to ask him to provide us that information.”
And even though Zinke is resigning, environmental and public interest groups are urging the inspector general and Justice Department to stay the course with their investigations into his alleged misconduct.
“The investigations into Zinke’s ties to industry and misuse of taxpayer funds must continue and the Department of the Interior must reexamine every decision made during Zinke’s tenure that may have been influenced by the fossil fuel industry and other polluting special interests,” League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said Saturday in a statement.
Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president of energy and environmental policy at the Center for American Progress said the Department of Justice, congressional investigators, and the inspector general need to aggressively and independently continue their investigations into Zinke’s conduct so it can be determined how deep the corruption goes. (Disclosure: ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.)
“While his resignation may or may not save him from the investigations that are closing in around him, it is absolutely clear that Zinke has no business ever occupying another elected office or position of public trust,” Goldfuss said Saturday in a statement.
Unlike Grijalva, Sen. Lisa Murkowsi (R-AK), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is unlikely to order investigations into Zinke. The Republican senator has not conducted oversight of Zinke’s conduct since he was sworn in as Interior secretary in March 2017. In fact, Murkowski said she was “disappointed” to learn Zinke is stepping down.
“He has been a strong partner for western states and for Alaska, in particular,” Murkowski said in a statement.
She claims to have a good relationship with Zinke despite reports that the Interior secretary threatened her in a phone call in August 2017 over her vote against the GOP replacement plan for the Affordable Care Act.
Whether Zinke will face penalties from any of the investigations depends on the nature of the violations. The Interior Department’s inspector general could make a finding that would result in an ethics training or a demotion. But Zinke will be insulated from such punishment because he will be gone by the time the inspector general’s office completes its investigation, Delaney Marsco, ethics counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, told ThinkProgress,.
Former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt — who also left his post amid mounting scandals — has largely managed to escape the consequences of the investigations he was facing. After resigning in July, the outcome of the many investigations into Pruitt have generally been inconclusive because it’s harder for investigators to access information and do interviews when the government official is no longer in office.
The EPA’s Office of Inspector General, for example, closed two probes into Pruitt’s conduct when he was EPA chief without reaching any conclusions because he resigned as administrator before he could be interviewed. This mild treatment could indicate there may be similar hurdles in holding Zinke accountable.
With Zinke out of the administration, the only harm to him from a negative inspector general’s report would be to his reputation, Marsco said. As for Pruitt, his violations don’t appear to be criminal or implicate a criminal conflict of interest statute, she added.
“Like Scott Pruitt at the EPA before him, Ryan Zinke is leaving the Interior Department under intense scrutiny of both his personal financial dealings and his ethical conduct as a cabinet official,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of environmental group Food & Water Watch, said Monday in a statement.
With regard to the inspector general and the potential Justice Department investigations of Zinke, “if someone could just quit and anything criminal they did in office never is investigated or looked into, that would be a perverse result,” Marsco emphasized.
President Donald Trump is expected to announce his pick for the next Interior secretary sometime this week. Until Zinke’s replacement gets confirmed by the Senate, Interior Deputy Administrator David Bernhardt will likely serve as acting secretary.
Despite Zinke’s resignation, environmental groups are not optimistic policies at the Interior Department will improve if Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist, is chosen to serve as acting secretary.