More than 10 federal investigations have now been opened into Secretary of the Interior Department Ryan Zinke’s financial and ethical decisions during his tenure with the Trump administration.
The agency’s internal watchdog announced an eleventh investigation on Wednesday evening, drawing further attention to Zinke’s behavior while running the department, and in this case, his connections to one of the world’s most powerful oil companies.
The Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) launched a formal probe into Zinke’s real estate dealings backed by a Halliburton chairman mid-week after indicating the watchdog would do so earlier last month. Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote to Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, confirming the investigation.
“You expressed special concern about the reported funding by a top executive at Halliburton and assuring decisions that affect the nation’s welfare are not compromised by individual self enrichment,” wrote Kendall. “My office opened an investigation into this matter on July 16.”
Zinke has been under fire for his role in a land deal linked to Halliburton chairman David Lesar. A Politico report in June revealed that a foundation established by Zinke and his wife, Lola, is linked to a multimillion dollar real estate deal in the secretary’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana.
The project is backed by Lesar and referred to as 95 Karrow. In August 2017, Zinke reportedly met with Lesar and his son, along with Casey Malmquist, the 95 Karrow project developer, in his agency office in Washington, D.C. They later had dinner together away from the department.
Democrats called for an investigation into those revelations, noting that Zinke’s possible opening of some of the 500 million acres of public lands he oversees for oil drilling would directly benefit companies like Halliburton. Lesar and his wife in the past donated the maximum campaign contribution to Zinke’s first congressional campaign.
During his time as secretary, Zinke has faced at least 13 federal investigations or requests for investigation, with 11 formally opened. According to the Center for Western Priorities, Zinke is currently the subject of seven open investigations, with another four opened and closed.
Apart from Zinke’s ties to Halliburton, those that are currently open include investigations into allegations of scrubbing climate change from government reports, a decision to halt studies on the impact of drilling and mining, the improper use of agency vehicles, a Connecticut casino expansion, and two separate violations of the Hatch Act. That law prohibits most executive branch employees from engaging in certain political activities, something Zinke may have done with, among other things, a pair of socks.
A third investigation into a possible Hatch Act violation was opened and closed. Other closed investigations into Zinke’s actions involve improper use of chartered flights, senior staff reassignments, and alleged threats made to Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office over the Affordable Care Act.
That investigation was closed due to a lack of cooperation from Interior officials. Thomas Armstrong, general counsel for the Government Accountability Office, wrote senior House Democrats at the time that, “Interior did not provide us with any information on the substance of the telephone calls. In light of this, we lack the requisite facts on which to base a legal opinion.”
Requests for investigation over a fourth potential Hatch Act violation, along with investment in a fire arms company and a U.S. Geological Survey science data ethical breach, are still pending.
In a statement released following the announcement on Wednesday, Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) linked Zinke’s behavior to that of former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt, who remains the subject of more than a dozen ongoing federal investigations. Beyer serves on the House Committee on Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the Interior Department.
“Scott Pruitt clearly was not the only member of Trump’s Cabinet with multiple, serious ethics problems,” said Beyer. “Unfortunately, as in Pruitt’s case, many of Secretary Zinke’s issues stem from ignoring ethics guidelines while empowering industry. The rampant corruption in the Trump Administration is the product of a president who sets the worst possible example and a Congress which shrugs off its oversight duties. The American people deserve better.”
Pruitt resigned earlier this month amid uproar over his spending and ethical decisions as EPA administrator. President Trump had repeatedly expressed support for Pruitt. The president has yet to formally comment on the mounting investigations surrounding Zinke.