Special interests take the wheel at Interior as Zinke focuses on his political future

Earlier this week, POLITICO broke the news that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s family’s foundation is helping a Halliburton-backed developer exploit land that had originally been set aside for a public park in honor of veterans for a commercial development in Whitefish, Montana. If the developer’s proposed hotel, stores and microbrewery come to fruition, the Zinkes’ own private land on the other side of the development could substantially increase in value, and there’s reportedly a strong possibility that the microbrewery would be given to Ryan and Lola Zinke to own and operate.

The Halliburton oil chairman also happens to be a long-time political supporter of Zinke; both he and his wife gave maximum contributions to his congressional campaigns. Watchdog groups, including Western Values Project, have called out Zinke and are requesting that Interior’s ethics officials investigate to see if his connection to the land deal violates any laws. Since being confirmed as Interior Secretary, Zinke appears to have used his public office for his personal advancement and has been acting more like a political candidate than a Cabinet official. Unfortunately, this is just one of the many examples of how the scandal-plagued Secretary is paying back his political allies and special interest donors and may be greasing the wheels for his own political future at the expense of our national parks, public lands, and taxpayers.

Zinke, a former Congressman from Montana, was confirmed as Interior Secretary on March 1, 2017, promising to be one of the most transparent secretaries in his lifetime. Over the last 15 months, Zinke’s travel, prolific fundraising appearances, and other political maneuvering have raised as many eyebrows as they have ethical and legal questions, leading many to assume he is posturing himself for an eventual presidential run and merely using the Department of Interior as a stepping stone for national recognition.

Just seven months into his tenure, POLITICO reported that Zinke’s taxpayer-funded trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands for a Republican Party fundraiser came on the heels of “more than a half-dozen times Zinke [had] met with big donors or political groups while on department-paid trips, …  raising questions about his habit of mixing official government business with political activism.”

Even more, POLITICO reported, “Ethics watchdogs say Zinke is combining politics with his Interior duties so frequently that he risks tripping over the prohibitions against using government resources for partisan activity.” Zinke’s former colleagues in the House wrote a letter to the Secretary criticizing his political travel.

In addition to his taxpayer-funded political travels, a PAC associated with Zinke apparently continued to fundraise well into his tenure as a Cabinet official. The Federal Election Commission asked the PAC — SEAL PAC — to account for more than $600,000 in political contributions from January to June 2017.

Credit: ABC News

“Speculation that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has loftier political aspirations” was also stoked when “a conservative political group ran a campaign-style TV advertisement in Washington” HuffPost reported in April. The ad, which featured “sweeping views of several national parks and a close-up of a smiling Zinke,” called on viewers to support Zinke’s efforts to address the National Park System’s maintenance backlog. The ads, coordinated by allies of Vice President Mike Pence, prompted speculation that Zinke was aiming to increase his name recognition.

Combined with reporting that a “polling firm has been calling Iowa Republican voters to test Zinke’s name recognition for a possible run, presumably in 2024,” Zinke’s ongoing interview circuit, his appearance at the Montana State Society Rocky Mountain Oyster festival in Arlington, and his hiring of an Iowa Republican political consultant for a position with the National Park Service, the secretary’s political ambitions are on full display — and his abdication of leadership in service of his own political future is creating an opening for special interests to helm the ship at Interior.

Western Values Project has extensively documented the revolving door between industry and Interior — and how those special interest lobbyists, with the keys to the agency, are undermining protections for public lands and national monuments.

Financial disclosure forms for Interior appointees reveal the extent to which industry officials are infiltrating Interior and influencing policy. Previous research conducted by Western Values Project highlighted some 33 meetings Secretary Zinke held with extractive industry companies and representatives over a ten month period, averaging nearly one meeting per week. The report also details extensive communication between Interior officials and industry leaders, and their resulting influence over key policies and decisions at Interior.

In April, the Interior Inspector General released a report on Zinke’s politically motivated efforts to reassign career civil servants at the department. Weeks prior, The Washington Post reported that Zinke apologized to a mining firm executive after he complained about federal pollution rules, “another example of the deference the Trump administration gives to excavation companies.”

Moreover, two new members Zinke recently added to a key committee that regulates and sets the price for drilling and mining on our public lands represent special interests and have extensive ties to industry and lobbyist organizations.

As Interior Secretary, Zinke’s bidding for industry lobbyists and special interests has known no bounds: he has ushered in the largest reduction in public lands protections in U.S. history for oil interests, rolled back environmental regulations, limited public input, opened thousands of acres to oil and gas leasing in critical habitat, and halted the implementation of the methane flaring rule that has already cost taxpayers over $36 million in royalties, among other actions.

As special interests continue to run the Department of Interior — especially as Zinke flies around the country soliciting political donations, appearing on Fox News, and giving sweetheart deals to special interests in his hometown — the question must be asked: what is Zinke running for, and how is that in service to the American people?

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