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Watchdog clears Zinke of one ethics scandal but Democrats eye future investigations

The secretary's scandals will follow him into 2019.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signs a Public Lands Order at a ceremony in Emigrant, MT on October 08, 2018. CREDIT: William Campbell-Corbis via Getty Images
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signs a Public Lands Order at a ceremony in Emigrant, MT on October 08, 2018. CREDIT: William Campbell-Corbis via Getty Images

An internal watchdog for the Interior Department has cleared Secretary Ryan Zinke of wrongdoing in a probe concerning the redrawing of a Utah national monument’s boundaries. The decision comes as Democrats look to press forward with other investigations into Zinke’s actions as head of the department.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has found no evidence that Zinke shrunk the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah as a favor to State Rep. Mike Noel. The Republican owns land near the monument that was previously surrounded by it, but is now outside of it following the Interior Department’s controversial redrawing of the area’s boundaries.

Noel, a long-time critic of federal land management, had pushed hard for the shrinking of Grand Staircase-Escalante. He even appeared onstage with President Donald Trump when the monument’s reduction was announced last December.

Environmentalists and ethics watchdogs, however, have repeatedly expressed concern about the nature of Noel’s input in the decision, which would present a conflict of interest due to his land ownership in the area.

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Despite this, the OIG reportedly found no evidence that Zinke or other department officials favored the lawmaker. Congress has not yet seen the report, which the OIG sent to the Interior Department on Nov. 21.

In a statement, Interior Department spokesperson Heather Swift said the OIG’s conclusion “shows exactly what the secretary’s office has known all along — that the monument boundaries were adjusted in accordance with all rules, regulations and laws.” Swift also accused “political opponents and special interest groups” of concocting allegations targeting Zinke and others.

The Interior Department’s decision to shrink Grand Staircase-Escalante and other monuments has been labeled as an overreach by Democrats and green groups.

Internal agency documents have also indicated that energy development, specifically oil and gas exploration, played a key role in the decision to shrink Bears Ears, another Utah monument. Despite public outcry, however, none of Zinke’s decisions involving public lands have seen the secretary edged out of his position.

Public lands are nonetheless back in the spotlight following the release of the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA), which dropped on Black Friday last week and highlighted climate change impacts nationally, along with a U.S. Geological Survey report released the same day. The second report found that nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gases generated in the United States between 2005 and 2014 stemmed from fossil fuels produced on public lands.

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That assessment, commissioned during the Obama administration, does not account for the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to expand fossil fuel production on federal soil.

The OIG’s Grand Staircase-Escalante findings don’t mean Zinke is in the clear. The secretary has come under scrutiny for a number of ethics and financial decisions, including a Montana land deal linked to Halliburton chairman David Lesar. Multiple investigations are ongoing into Zinke’s use of his office for alleged personal gain, with the Halliburton case reportedly referred to the Justice Department for further scrutiny.

More high-profile scandals involving Trump administration officials like former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt largely steered public attention away from Zinke until mid-way through this year.

But with Democrats taking over the House of Representatives in January, that’s likely set to change. In addition to renewed scrutiny over Zinke’s ongoing investigations, Democrats have indicated they will look into a failed effort to to replace the current Interior OIG with a Trump administration appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

That goes for public lands as well. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) is set to chair the National Resources Committee and has repeatedly asserted that Zinke’s decision to shrink national monuments will be subject to scrutiny.

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“Secretary Zinke should have known the people he was listening to while destroying our national monuments had disqualifying conflicts of interest,” Grijalva said in response to news of the OIG’s findings in the Grand Staircase-Escalante probe.

Trump has said that he will “look into any complaints” regarding Zinke’s behavior but has otherwise praised the secretary and said he has no plans to fire him.