The Interior Department’s internal watchdog will probe Secretary Ryan Zinke’s role in a land deal backed by the chairman of one of the world’s largest oil field companies. The announcement follows a week of growing demands from Democrats calling for an investigation into Zinke’s involvement with the deal.
In a letter released Thursday by House Democrats, Interior Deputy Inspector General Mary L. Kendall wrote that the department’s watchdog office would examine “reported ongoing involvement in and use of taxpayer resources to advance land developments in Whitefish, Montana.” The letter, sent Wednesday, was addressed to Reps. Raul Grijalva (AZ), Donald McEachin (VA), and Jared Huffman (CA).
Politico first reported last week that a foundation established by Zinke and currently led by his wife Lola Zinke is playing a leading role in a multimillion dollar real estate deal backed by Halliburton chairman David Lesar and developed in Whitefish, Montana — Zinke’s hometown. Halliburton, an oil giant, would benefit from any Interior move to open up public lands for oil drilling, something Zinke would oversee.
The deal, called 95 Karrow, has been floated by Zinke since 2012 and includes hotel and retail development proposals, including a microbrewery. Lesar is financially backing the effort and Democrats have expressed concerns that the deal raises ethics questions, with Zinke set to financially benefit and Lesar’s involvement seen as a conflict of interest.
In 2014, Lesar and his wife gave the maximum campaign contribution of $10,400 to Zinke’s first congressional campaign, part of a long friendship between the two families. On Aug. 3 last year, Zinke met with Lesar, his son, and 95 Karrow lead project developer Casey Malmquist in his Interior Department office and later had dinner with all three men. Malmquist told Politico that no 95 Karrow conversations occurred in Zinke’s office.
The former director of the Office of Government Ethics under President Bush told Politico that the relationship between Zinke and Lesar was a red flag. “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 said.
Some 500 million acres of public lands are currently under Zinke’s oversight. The Trump administration has worked to open up public lands for fossil fuel extraction, something oil companies like Halliburton have largely supported.
Kendall, the Interior inspector general, told Democrats that a complaint had been opened as of June 20, a day after the news broke, and that the office “will review your concerns and specific questions during the course of the initial review.”
Rep. Grijalva praised the move on Thursday in a statement calling for scrutiny of Zinke’s actions.
“Secretary Zinke doesn’t seem to take his responsibility to the public seriously, said Grijalva. “This formal investigation is one of many he’s managed to pile up in his short and undistinguished tenure, and I join my Democratic colleagues in seeking the transparency and accountability that Republicans have so far not provided.”
The investigation coincides with a separate failed attempt to probe Zinke’s actions as head of the Interior Department. On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) wrote House Democrats to say the office could not ascertain whether Zinke had threatened Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) via phone call over her vote on the Affordable Care Act. GAO’s general counsel, Thomas Armstrong, said the office could not issue a decision because Zinke’s office refused to cooperate with the probe.