U.S. inspector general finds Zinke broke ethics rules, wasn’t honest about real estate dealings

By: - February 22, 2022 8:51 am

Ryan Zinke, right, as the Secretary of the Interior, at Sequoia National Park | White House/National Archives

An investigation by the inspector general of the Department of the Interior found that former Secretary Ryan Zinke, a native of Montana and current congressional candidate, committed multiple ethics violations and was not honest in disclosing real estate dealings while he served in the Cabinet of former President Donald J. Trump.

The investigation, released Wednesday, centered on Zinke’s role with a nonprofit foundation he established with his wife and a group of developers, one of whom was a high-ranking executive with the defense and energy services company Halliburton.

While the 32-page inspector general’s report outlines more than 60 texts, with emails or other communications, it stopped short of recommending any criminal charges for Zinke, who refused to participate in the investigation. It also found no evidence that Zinke had used his position as Interior chief to benefit Halliburton.

Zinke’s current campaign manager, Heather Swift, was also his spokesperson while at the Department of the Interior. In an email to the Daily Montanan, she accused the Biden administration of publishing “false information” and said the investigation was a “political hit job.”

The investigation showed that even when news of Zinke’s potential dealings in Whitefish broke in 2018, he lied to the department’s ethics investigators, denying any involvement and saying his wife was still on the board, making decisions. Lola Zinke also declined to speak with investigators.

Inspectors were able to obtain email, texts and other testimony that show that Zinke was involved with the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation after he had officially signed an agreement to resign from the position.

It also shows that Zinke made modifications and suggestions to the developers about details like fence lines and snow removal. At one point, Zinke said if developers wanted to use the land as a parking lot, they’d have to grant him permission to establish a brewery or distillery on the location, something the developers called, “a big ask.”

The inspector general’s office received 64 emails and text messages from Aug. 21, 2017, through July 30, 2018.

“Zinke played an extensive, direct, and substantive role in representing the foundation during negotiations with the 95 Karrow project developers,” the report said.

One of those messages between the developers in September 2017 details how intricately Zinke was involved.

“Zinke is asking us to transfer…(a) corner of the land (and all utilities) to the Peace Park for the brewery, (which I am assume (sic) he still think he can spot zone on county property). He is also asking for an exclusive right to produce alcohol on 95 Karrow and the Peace Park. In essence, he is leveraging the parking and snow storage for the Brewery lot and legal access to his site,” the text reads.

The report also shows that Zinke used his government staff to print documents and arrange for meetings with the developers, including one meeting at Zinke’s Washington, D.C., office, with dinner that night and a personal guided tour of the Lincoln Monument, which included a security detail for Zinke.

The report also deals with Zinke’s response to media inquiries when reporters started digging into the deal. Zinke exchanged 37 text messages with the developer about how to deal with press inquiries about the project and the secretary’s involvement.

In one, Zinke sends a text, referring to himself in third person, seeming to coach the developer how to respond, “(The news organization) is not our friend. Zinke has resigned from the park and has turned all decisions over to the board. We are working with the board in the best interest of the community that we love.”

In the news reports from 2018, he told both the Associated Press and Lee Newspapers that he had resigned and was not active in the discussions.

When news broke of his involvement, the ethics office within the Department of Interior interviewed him about the reports, to which he responded, “Neither the park nor (my wife) or I have any financial interest or involvement in the building or operation of the micro-brewery or any other facility within the 95 Karrow development.”

During Zinke’s tenure in office, the Washington Post reports, there were 15 misconduct allegations. Most closed without finding any evidence, but one is still ongoing.

“Secretary Zinke did not abide by ethics obligations while Secretary of the Interior,” the report said. “Evidence consistently showed that Secretary Zinke had extensive and in-depth involvement with the 95 Karrow project developers regarding Foundation matters in the months after he resigned as the foundation president and from its board.

“With respect to knowing falsity, we rely primarily on the sheer amount of detail in the communications between Secretary Zinke and the developers. We believe that the level and extent of Secretary Zinke’s engagement with the developers on issues pertaining to the Foundation generally and the 95 Karrow project in particular make it unlikely that he would have forgotten or misconstrued his role. The emails and other communications were not causal exchanges but rather were in-depth discussions about particular aspects of the project, the foundation, and how the two intersected.”

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.

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