Western Values Project (WVP), a Montana-based conservation group, represented by watchdog American Oversight, today filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior (DOI) to investigate whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has used his position for personal or political gain. WVP is seeking the release of a broad range of documents related to Zinke’s conduct during his tenure as secretary, including records of Zinke’s travel to various political conferences, his communications with individuals tied to Halliburton, and any emails sent by or to Zinke on personal email accounts or private servers.
“Whether it’s a sweetheart land deal or private chartered flights, it’s long past time to shine a light on Zinke’s public documents,” said Chris Saeger, Western Values Project Executive Director. “Some of these public records requests date back over a year, well past the legally acceptable timeframe to release documents. If Zinke has nothing to hide, his office would promptly address this complaint by fulfilling these requests.”
Zinke’s alleged ethical violations over the past year and a half have spurred outcry from lawmakers, watchdogs, and the public. DOI’s Inspector General and the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel have opened 14 investigations into Zinke, including his taxpayer-funded travel, possible violations of the Hatch Act, and alleged involvement in a sweetheart land deal with the chairman of Halliburton.
WVP’s lawsuit aims to uncover records that would shed light on details of Zinke’s alleged corruption. The suit seeks to compel the release of documents related to some of the same incidents that led federal investigators to examine Zinke, including his role in backing a commercial development involving his family’s foundation in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, funded by Halliburton Chairman David Lesar. As planning for the development has progressed, DOI has acted to roll back protections for public lands and relax drilling standards that benefit Halliburton. WVP is also demanding the release of records showing Zinke’s use of taxpayer-funded travel to attend political events, including a closed-door meeting with the American Legislative Exchange Council in Denver, an appearance at a North Dakota GOP convention, and a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.
“As Ryan Zinke’s ethical scandals continue to pile up, the public has been left with more questions than answers,” said Austin Evers, Executive Director of American Oversight. “From taxpayer-funded travel to potential business deals with oil industry executives, it’s long past time for us to learn exactly what else Secretary Zinke has been doing to benefit himself through public office.”
The suit comes after WVP filed twelve Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests dating back to August 2017 seeking records related to Zinke’s compliance with ethics rules. DOI failed to provide records in response to all of WVP’s FOIA requests. Eight of the requests targeted records related to Zinke’s flights and other travel to destinations including Montana, North Dakota, and Maryland.
WVP’s other requests sought records related to possible personal email and private server use by Zinke, as well as communications between Zinke and individuals tied to Halliburton. The suit also seeks to compel the release of records requested by American Oversight related to DOI’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.
See the full complaint here.