Interior Department’s ethics controversy now extends to Lola Zinke

Is Zinke using her husband’s office to boost her career?

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, with his wife Lola Zinke, right, greets an Interior Department employee in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Daly
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, with his wife Lola Zinke, right, greets an Interior Department employee in Washington. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Daly

The wife of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is entangled in an ethics controversy — one that has already ensnared her husband — over her travel habits and possible improper use of taxpayer funds.

In response to a last-minute request by Lolita “Lola” Zinke, staff at the Department of the Interior spent extra time reworking travels arrangements for one of her husband’s official trips, according to documents acquired in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the Western Values Project. The documents also revealed that Lola Zinke, who works as a Republican Party activist and consultant, asked Interior staff to invite certain guests to an event hosted by the right-wing Young America’s Foundation where her husband was scheduled to give an official speech.

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Now, government watchdogs are actively questioning whether she is taking advantage of the new platform provided by the Interior Department, at taxpayer expense, to gain access to powerful Republicans who can help raise her profile.

“Lolita Zinke is clearly a long-term Republican activist who appears to have an interest in building a career in partisan politics. She is able to use these official travels of the Interior secretary to spread her influence within networks of major Republican donors and Republican operatives,” Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit group that promotes good governance, told ThinkProgress.

Possibly more troubling is how Lola Zinke’s “access to high-level politicians and her role in deciding who has access to official government events” could be allowing major Republican donors to help “shape agency rules and regulations,” said Corey Ciorciari, director of strategy and policy for Democracy Forward, a newly formed nonprofit legal organization that focuses on the executive branch.

At the very least, Ryan Zinke “has saddled taxpayers with the expense of planning his wife’s extravagant dinners and trips,” Ciorciari said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

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The Western Values Project, a nonprofit watchdog group based in Montana — where Zinke served as the state’s only member of the House of Representatives for one term — filed the FOIA lawsuit in October to force Interior to release more than 100 pages of documents related to Lola Zinke’s trips with her husband and interactions with Interior Department staff.

“She is able to use these official travels of the Interior secretary to spread her influence…”

Chris Saeger, director of the Western Values Project, said he saw no cases where the spouses of the Interior secretaries in the Obama administration — Sally Jewell and Ken Salazar — were as involved as Lola Zinke is in the official business of her husband.

If the Interior Department’s approach to allowing Lola Zinke to travel with her husband on official business “is this sloppy, then there are a lot of reasons to be incredibly disturbed with what they are doing with our nation’s energy resources, with our parks, and with an outdoor heritage that is so important to people across the American West,” Saeger said in an interview.

Cabinet secretaries under President Barack Obama were much more careful in the ethics arena than they are in the Trump administration, according to Holman. “Trump has set the tone for the entire administration — that conflicts of interest, ethics rules really don’t matter,” he said, adding, “It is not unimaginable to believe this is going to have a direct impact on Ryan Zinke’s career.”

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The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, which is investigating the Zinkes’ travel practices, issued what is being described as a “rare alert” questioning the extent to which the department has been reimbursed for Lola Zinke’s travel costs. Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote that the department’s documentation was so deficient that investigators could not determine “the full extent” of her trips and how they were paid for, The Hill reported.

In the memo, released earlier this month, Kendall requested more documents related to the Zinkes’ travel history since Ryan Zinke took over as Interior secretary in March, and recommended the department overhaul its internal travel management system. Zinke’s office has not completed “many authorizations and vouchers required” for travel taken by him so far this year, Kendall wrote.

In an email obtained in the FOIA request, Russell Roddy, who directs scheduling and advance for the Interior Department, wrote to colleagues on May 27 about Lola Zinke’s last-minute request to travel to Alaska. According to a Politico report, the email read: “Mrs. Zinke said she was now going to head to Byers Lake and Anchorage with RKZ and fly out of Anchorage on Tuesday. UGH! We have all kinds of planes, trains and automobiles manifests to now scramble with.”

“The mere fact that the IG’s office is pursuing an investigation into this means that there is considerable concern of some self-dealing going on with the Zinke travel,” Holman said. “It could just be focusing on Lolita and that she’s using her husband’s official travel record to spread her influence for her own personal purposes.”

Ryan Zinke has run into some ethically gray areas of his own. The Interior secretary reportedly charged taxpayers for the use of a private plane — owned by oil and gas executives — for him to travel from Las Vegas to his home in Montana after giving a speech to the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team. The team is owned by Bill Foley, a billionaire businessman who is chairman of Fidelity National Financial Inc., Zinke’s largest campaign contributors over the course of his career.

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The Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit government watchdog group, was among the groups that requested Interior’s Office of Inspector General look into whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act and conflict-of-interest laws by making the trip.

Watchdog groups emphasize that the public is now seeing how personal relationships and political loyalty are guiding the actions of the current administration. “We’re suing the Department of the Interior to uncover the truth about what role Secretary Zinke’s wife is playing in running the department, how much it’s costing taxpayers, and why she was jetting off to Europe with her husband on a military plane,” Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight — the group that filed the FOIA lawsuit against the Interior Department on behalf of the Western Values Project — said in a statement.

In May, Lola Zinke and her husband joined a congressional delegation on a trip to Norway, Greenland, and Alaska. An Interior spokesperson told CNN that Lola Zinke was one of many spouses invited on the trip, which was organized by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The spokesperson said it “is standard for those trips” to include spouses.

The Interior Department has said Lola Zinke pays for her travel costs when she travels on official government trips with her husband. But Politico reported that the department used staff time to coordinate some of her activities. On the official agency trips with her husband, Lola Zinke gained access to Republican activists and donors who could assist her work as a GOP political activist and consultant, according to Politico.

Lola Zinke grew up in Santa Barbara, California, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. After Trump’s election victory, his transition team described Lola Zinke, who has a law degree, as “a highly educated and successful businesswoman” who “has proven to be a respected adviser to the President-Elect.” (Lola Zinke worked on Trump’s campaign as a member of Trump’s Hispanic and women’s outreach efforts last year and was a member of the transition team for the Veterans Affairs Department after the election.)

When her husband was running for a U.S. House seat in Montana in 2014, friends of Lola Zinke’s family hosted a fundraiser for Ryan Zinke just outside Santa Barbara. Political signs for Ryan Zinke’s campaign in Montana were posted near the fundraiser, causing some neighbors to complain about the out-of-state political signs.

During the 2016 presidential election, Lola Zinke wrote an op-ed for the far-right website Breitbart explaining why she believed Trump would make a great president. “We all know Mr. Trump has said some regrettable things. He’s since apologized. I got over it,” Lola Zinke wrote. “I think this election is about more than locker room talk.” Lola Zinke was responding to Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women during an appearance on Access Hollywood.

In August, Lola Zinke tweeted a photo of herself with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former senior strategist and a driving force behind the growth of Breitbart as a go-to site for the far right. In the tweet, Zinke exclaims she “loves this man.”

Among her activities as a Republican operative, Lola Zinke is working as the campaign chair for Troy Downing, a Montana businessman seeking the Republican nomination to run against Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) in 2018. Downing told a local news outlet in Montana that he “is a strong supporter of our president and wants to help drain the swamp.” He is hoping to use Lola Zinke’s name recognition to raise his profile and generate cash for his campaign.

According to The Hill, Republicans in Montana describe Lola Zinke as well respected among conservative activists. “Lola, in her own right, is a force,” a Downing supporter told the newspaper.