A controversial contract benefiting a small company based in his hometown is only the latest possible corruption scandal linked to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who has come under fire for his spending habits as well as his connections to special interests and potential misuse of campaign funds.
On Monday, nonprofit watchdog group the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) accused Zinke’s dormant congressional campaign of dodging rules prohibiting individuals from converting political donations into individual revenue. According to an official Federal Election Commission complaint, the campaign allegedly purchased an RV from Zinke’s wife, then sold it to a friend at a steeply discounted price a year later, lowering the car’s price from $59,100 to $25,000. The recipient, Ed Buttrey, is a Montana state senator rumored to be in the running to be nominated Interior assistant secretary.
The CLC cited the RV sale along with Zinke’s earlier hotel stays in the Virgin Islands and New York — trips he took on the Interior Department’s dime — as possible efforts to skirt federal contribution campaign rules.
“When you combine the disregard for campaign finance laws when Zinke was a candidate with the disregard that Zinke as Interior secretary has shown for the ethics laws, you certainly get a picture of an individual who may not be taking his responsibilities as an officeholder seriously,” said Brendan Fischer, who submitted the complaint on behalf of the CLC.
Zinke’s other ethical close-calls, as the CLC noted, are plentiful.
Last week, a two-person for-profit private company from Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana secured a $300 million contract to help rebuild Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory has struggled for over a month following a devastating hurricane and much of the island stills lacks access to power and water. But many officials questioned the decision to award Whitefish Energy Holdings the contract and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) criticized the deal. The company eventually lost the contract amid “significant concerns” about its ability to adequately perform necessary relief work, as well as increasing scrutiny and calls from Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, to cancel the deal. An audit of the deal is underway on both a federal and local level.
Zinke has denied any connection to the contract, blaming the growing scandal on coastal elitism and a bias against small towns.
“I had absolutely nothing to do with Whitefish Energy receiving a contract in Puerto Rico,” the interior secretary wrote in a statement on Friday.
“Any attempts by the dishonest media or political operatives to tie me to awarding of influencing any contract involving Whitefish [Energy Holdings] are completely baseless,” Zinke continued. “Only in elitist Washington, D.C., would being from a small town be considered a crime.”
But the Whitefish controversy has very little to do with the small town roots of Whitefish Energy Holdings and far more to do with alarm over possible corruption. Zinke has been connected to a number of other scandals — many of them ongoing and drawing increasing scrutiny.
As the overseer of approximately 500 million acres across the United States, Zinke plays a crucial role in crafting President Trump’s domestic climate policy. Under Trump’s budget, the Department of the Interior faces steep cuts, including an 80 percent reduction in funding for climate efforts.
Zinke himself has taken an apathetic approach to climate change and environmental protection on a broader level. He has called the Paris climate agreement — signed by virtually every country in the world apart from embattled Syria — a “badly negotiated deal” and has supported Trump’s decision to leave the landmark decision. He has also questioned the impact of climate change — claiming that “no models” exist proving the phenomenon’s impact on the planet — and sought to heavily downsize national monuments, despite outcry from activists and indigenous tribes.
As a Montana congressman, Zinke took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from oil and gas companies, many of whom drill on the same public lands he now oversees. Zinke received a total of $345,000 between 2013 and 2017 from donors like these, with one oil-and-gas executive giving the now-secretary as much as $11,600, according to Federal Election Commission data. These numbers have caused many to worry Zinke’s stances are being shaped by oil, gas, and coal lobbyists, as well as by climate skeptics more generally.
The secretary’s lavish trips are also alarming watchdog groups. This summer, Zinke took a $12,375 chartered flight from Las Vegas to an area near his Montana home, when a commercial equivalent would have cost around $300. That trip was aboard a private plane owned by a Wyoming oil-and-gas exploration firm, once again concerning climate activists.
In March, Zinke also took a taxpayer-funded trip to the aforementioned U.S. Virgin Islands, where he attended a Republican Party fundraiser and donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a photo with the secretary. That event was one of many Zinke attended with major donors and other political figures on Interior Department-funded trips, according to documents reviewed by Politico.
Earlier this month, 26 House Democrats wrote in a letter that Zinke’s trips “give the appearance that you are mixing political gatherings and personal destinations with official business.” Other figures have also expressed concern — Zinke’s Virgin Islands trip, which are mentioned in its complaint, attracted CLC’s attention three weeks ago.
“This activity constitutes impermissible solicitation of political contributions if event organizers conditioned the opportunity to take a photograph with Secretary Zinke on paying a higher fee,” CLC’s senior director for ethics, Walter Shaub, wrote to the Justice Department’s Office of Special Council. Shaub requested a Hatch Act investigation in order to determine whether Zinke violated rules restricting federal employees from partisan political events and dealings.
Monday’s complaint comes amid a Special Counsel investigation into Zinke’s spending habits, as well as a separate investigation opened by Interior Department’s inspector general.
Audits into Puerto Rico’s canceled contract with Whitefish Energy Holdings are also ongoing.