Ryan Zinke, the former secretary of the Department of the Interior under then-President Donald Trump and former resident of Santa Barbara, has repeatedly violated federal ethics rules that prohibit senior administration officials from conduct private business negotiations with individuals over whom they may exercise regulatory oversight. . In addition, the Federal Office of Inspector General found that Zinke had repeatedly and knowingly given false information to the ethics officer of the designated agency of the Department of the Interior who had investigated the allegations once. that they had surfaced in a newspaper article. Both findings were made public in a 32-page report released this week by the Office of Inspector General.
Zinke did not violate federal conflict of interest rules, however, because the negotiations he conducted did not involve any official action or government business.
Zinke, a frequent visitor to his wife’s family’s Santa Barbara home on the Mesa, was nominated by President Trump to serve as Secretary of the Interior Department in 2017 and resigned in January 2019 in the face of multiple allegations of ethics violations. He is currently running for the Republican congressional nomination in his home state of Montana.
When he was sworn in as Home Secretary, Zinke signed several legal documents stating that he had recused himself from any operational oversight or involvement with a family foundation, the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation that created in 2007 with his wife, Lola Hand Zinke. This foundation owned five acres of land in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana.
Despite his affidavits, Zinke had, in fact, been actively and aggressively involved in real estate negotiations with three investors – one of whom was David Lesar, then chairman of oil major Halliburton – who were pursuing a major joint venture. using the development scheme known as 95 Karrow on land immediately adjacent to the Zinke Foundation’s five acres.
In 2017 and 2018, Zinke – then Home Secretary – was negotiating intensely with these three investors, who wanted to use his foundation’s land to build a parking lot. In fact, Zinke hoped to leverage this land to secure exclusive rights to sell alcohol to the microbrewery the three investors hoped to build.
Before the story broke, it emerged that Zinke had helped coordinate the media rotation with the investors, pointing out that he had only nominal involvement in the negotiations, insisting that his Santa Barbara born and raised woman was in charge. After the story broke and Home Office ethics investigators interviewed Zinke, he insisted to them that his involvement was “de minimis”. In fact, he told investigators how he repeatedly pushed back against investors’ efforts to discuss the plans.
Both Zinke and his wife refused to meet with the Inspector’s Office, which responded by issuing subpoenas for Zinke’s voicemail, text messages, emails and other documents. They would discover records Zinke had shared with investors 64 times.
Once, in August 2017, the three investors visited Zinke at the offices of his Interior Ministry, where they met and spoke. His staff helped organize the meeting and handle email correspondence afterward, a clear violation of rules prohibiting federal personnel from working on the private affairs of office holders. Later that night, the four went to dinner at a DC restaurant, after which Zinke led them on a personal tour of the Lincoln Memorial, accompanied the entire time by his government security detail.
In early press accounts, it was reported that Zinke staff had been instructed to cover up their involvement. The Office of Inspector General concluded that there was no basis for this. Similarly, the Bureau found no evidence that Zinke gave special treatment to Haliburton, which has significant oil and gas interests on federal lands over which the Department of the Interior has immediate jurisdiction. Zinke, as secretary, was aggressively pro-oil, preaching the gospel of “energy dominance.”
In November 2018, Zinke found himself embroiled in multiple controversies surrounding alleged ethical lapses. In November of that year, his wife rescinded the foundation’s letter of intent to enter into the 95 Karrow land deal with the three investors. On January 2, 2019, he would resign as Home Secretary with one year remaining in his term.
He would then say that the cost and aggravation of defending himself against so many accusations – all baseless or exaggerated, he insisted – was not worth it. He similarly dismissed the Office of Inspector General’s findings, describing them as politically motivated.
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