Today, as scandals and ethics investigations swirl around him, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will deliver the keynote address at the Koch-funded Steamboat Institute’s 10th Annual Freedom Conference & Festival. The Steamboat Institute is part of the State Policy Network, an alliance of groups “that act as incubators of conservative strategy” at the state level and receive funding from groups funded by the oil billionaire Koch brothers.
Western Values Project found that six of the major sponsors of the event have clear special interest connections, and numerous other speakers at the event come from organizations tied to the Koch brothers and other major Republican donors, including the conservative mega-donor-turned-political candidate Foster Friess.
“As Secretary Zinke panders to a room full of lobbyists, special interests, and political donors, let’s not forget he’s embroiled in his own ethics scandal with the chairman of a major oil corporation, while simultaneously overseeing the dismantling of America’s public lands and wildlife by giving handouts to these same jokers,” said Western Values Project Deputy Director Jayson O’Neill. “Why is Secretary Zinke making the time to meet with and pander to this group of ideologically slated special interests, when his department refuses to listen to the overwhelming majority of the American public on national monuments, access to public lands, wildlife and a host of other issues?
One of the event sponsors, Sierra Valley Almonds, is especially cozy with Secretary Zinke’s Interior Department. Sierra Valley Almonds’ owner, Jean Sagouspe, has previously donated to Zinke’s congressional campaign. He is also a former president of the Westlands Water District Board, a former client of the lobbyist-turned-Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt. Bernhardt has come under scrutiny for his close relationship with Westlands after he continued to advise the company after he had been named to Donald Trump’s transition team. Secretary Zinke recently visited the project and has voiced his opposition to a water plan that Westlands is battling.
Interior also came under fire after Westlands received improperly allocated money for contractors from Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation. Sagouspe also sits on the board of the Steamboat Institute.
Another sponsor is former lobbyist Bill Thompson, one of Wyoming’s “top ten” lobbyists, who previously lobbied for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), a key player in transporting coal from the Powder River Basin. BNSF has donated $19,160 to Ryan Zinke in political contributions, and also gave Zinke the land for his ill-fated Great Northern Veterans Peace Park that is the subject of the most recent Inspector General investigation. Thompson also lobbied for Chevron. Thompson and his wife also co-chaired Liz Cheney’s 2014 Senate campaign.
The conference is also sponsored by David Dacus, the CEO of Troy Construction, a pipeline construction company; Bill Bensler, the retired chairman of Flood and Peterson Insurance, whose clients included drilling contractors, refineries and pipeline companies; El Pomar Foundation, which has commissioned studies funded by oil and gas companies; and Irene Johnson, Director on the National Association of Royalty Owners, an organization that promotes mineral exploration and production. Johnson also manages her own “portfolio of family minerals.”
In addition to the event sponsors, four other speakers at the event have ties to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has received hundreds of thousands in funding from ExxonMobil and millions from the Koch brothers’ family foundations. One of the Heritage Speakers is former Trump staffer Sebastian Gorka, who has ties to neo-Nazi extremists and was a pal of Zinke’s when he served in the administration.
Two of the other speakers at the event are from Turning Point USA, an organization whose mission is to “organize students to promote the principles of freedom, free markets, and limited government” and was started by conservative mega-donor Foster Friess, who has Koch brother ties and is currently running to be the Governor of Wyoming.
Previous analysis by Western Values Project found that in his seventeen months as Interior Secretary, Secretary ZInke has frequently made political trips and met with donors on numerous occasions.
Steamboat locals have spoken out about Zinke’s visit and Coloradans plan on holding a ‘Stand For Our Land’ rally outside of the event due to his policies and failed management that have negatively impacted America’s national parks and public lands.