Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s conduct attracts unprecedented scrutiny from government investigators

New analysis finds 14 government investigations into Zinke’s actions at Interior — more than the last four secretaries combined [UPDATED]

By Greg Zimmerman

Editors’ note: The tables in this article have been updated to reflect a 13th investigation into a real estate deal involving Secretary Zinke, his wife Lola, a nonprofit organization they founded, and the chairman of Halliburton, as well as a 14th investigation into Secretary Zinke’s “Make America Great Again” socks, a potential Hatch Act violation.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tenure at the Department of the Interior has been marked by a series of ongoing scandals, with the secretary’s actions coming under unprecedented levels of scrutiny by internal government investigators. In just over one year in office, Secretary Zinke is already facing 14 investigations into his conduct, with 11 investigations confirmed and at least another three investigations requested.

By comparison, the four secretaries of the Interior to precede Secretary Zinke — Secretaries Jewell and Salazar who served under President Obama, and Secretaries Kempthorne and Norton who served under President Bush — are known to have faced a combined 11 investigations into their conduct.

This summary, completed by the Center for Western Priorities during May 2018, is based on a search of all reports on the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General’s website, along with news articles from 2001–2018. It compares known Interior Department Office of Inspector General and U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigations into the five most recent secretaries of the Interior. To be included in the summary, an investigation must have either included the secretary as the subject, or the secretary’s actions must have played a prominent role in the investigation.

Secretary Zinke’s behavior in office first came under scrutiny early into his tenure when the Inspector General opened an investigation into the questionable reassignments of upwards of 50 Senior Executive Service employees — the highest level career civil servants — who were moved into new jobs under dubious circumstances.

As Shelby Hallmark, a former board chair at the Senior Executives Association explained, the mass reassignment “seemed designed to disrupt the functioning of the agencies involved, and likely to drive as many executives as possible into retirement or quiescence.”

The action made national news when a senior scientist and policy expert, Joel Clement, filed for whistleblower protections and ultimately resigned from the Interior Department. Clement’s whistleblower complaint accused the Trump administration of reassigning him in retaliation over his work on the impacts of climate change to Alaska Native communities. Clement was removed from his position as a top climate expert at the Interior Department and moved into an accounting position within the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, a job for which he had no expertise.

Last September, the Inspector General opened an investigation into the issue. Investigators concluded in an April 2018 report that Secretary Zinke and agency leadership failed to sufficiently document its reasoning behind the reassignments. Without information necessary to fully investigate the circumstances surrounding the reassignments, like Joel Clement’s, the Inspector General could not determine if the agency complied with federal law.

The investigative workload is becoming a problem for the overtaxed Inspector General.

This was not the first time investigators hit a dead end because of insufficient documentation or uncooperative witnesses. After Secretary Zinke threatened to torpedo Senator Lisa Murkowski’s home-state priorities if she voted against Obamacare repeal efforts in Congress, the Inspector General opened an investigation into whether the secretary violated anti-lobbying laws. Investigators were forced to shutter their investigation because Alaska Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan refused to cooperate in the inquiry. Zinke also dodged questions from the Government Accountability Office about his conversations with Murkowski and Sullivan.

In a third investigation, the Inspector General concluded that Secretary Zinke’s use of a private charter flight in June 2017, at a cost of more than $12,000 to taxpayers, was avoidable. Investigators found that Interior Department leadership was not forthright with ethics staff about the purpose of the secretary’s trip to Nevada and the reasons for the private plane — to make a speech to a Las Vegas-based professional hockey team owned by one of the secretary’s largest political benefactors. The Inspector General concluded that, “If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight.”

The investigation also found that Zinke misled investigators about the timeline surrounding that flight. The secretary initially claimed that the hockey speech was scheduled after an official Interior Department event was announced in nearby Pahrump, Nevada. Investigators determined that was false — Zinke was aware of the hockey team’s invitation weeks before the Pahrump event was scheduled.

Beyond the four investigations already concluded, the Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel are undertaking an additional seven investigations that either directly address Secretary Zinke’s conduct in office or which implicate the secretary. Three more investigations are known to have been requested, but it is not known whether government investigators are pursuing investigations.

The investigative workload is becoming a problem for the overtaxed Inspector General. Because of the number and complexity of investigations they have undertaken in the past year, the Office of Inspector General is now warning Congress that it can only begin a preliminary review of new misconduct “once staff becomes available.” The Inspector General says other investigations are being held “in our queue” — sending a clear message to Secretary Zinke that even if he and his staff commit misconduct, the Interior Department’s watchdog doesn’t have the teeth to hold political appointees accountable.

Members of congress have requested more funding for the Office of the Inspector General. Representatives Raúl Grijalva and Donald McEachin, the ranking members of the Natural Resources Committee and Oversight Subcommittee, noted that the number of complaints increased by 27 percent from FY 2015 to FY 2017, yet the Office of Inspector General opened investigations into just seven percent of the complaints it received last year.

Sources

Investigators are currently looking into Secretary Zinke’s decision to ignore the advice of career Interior Department experts and block two Connecticut tribes, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, from opening a casino. The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Indian Gaming had recommended approving construction, but after intense lobbying by casino giant MGM to influence high-level officials in Secretary Zinke’s inner circle, the agency changed its mind. Investigators are also looking into the secretary’s role in editing scientific reports — even though he insists his team has never “changed a comma” — in addition to potential Hatch Act violations for conducting improper political activity as an official in the Trump administration.

When compared against the previous four Interior secretaries, spanning nearly two decades, 14 investigations into Secretary Zinke’s conduct is extraordinary. Secretaries Jewell, Salazar, Kempthorne, and Norton were known to have faced only 11 investigations combined.

Sources

There is no doubt past Interior secretaries came under the microscope for their actions or actions taken by their deputies. But the breadth and depth of investigations already opened into Secretary Zinke — who has completed just over a quarter of one term — is unprecedented. Secretary Zinke’s direct predecessor at the Interior Department, Sally Jewell, did not face a single investigation into her conduct. She served three times longer than Secretary Zinke has.

Secretary Salazar, President Obama’s first Secretary of the Interior, was the subject of an investigation on four separate occasions during his four plus years in office. The Inspector General, for example, conducted an investigation into the Interior Department’s justification for implementing a 6-month moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

President George W. Bush’s final Interior Secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, was investigated on two separate occasions. That included an investigation into Secretary Kempthorne’s decision to approve a $235,000 bathroom renovation in the secretary’s office. Secretary Gale Norton, Kempthorne’s direct predecessor, is known to have been investigated on five occasions — although two of those investigations were major corruption probes.

In 2009, the Inspector General opened an investigation into former Secretary Norton’s giving preferential treatment to Royal Dutch Shell, an oil company she would take a job with mere months later. The corruption probe wrapped-up in 2010, with investigators concluding that “Norton was very interested in the [Royal Dutch Shell’s Research, Development, and Demonstration] program during her tenure as Secretary, but [investigators] did not find evidence to conclusively determine that Norton violated conflict of-interest laws, either pre- or post-employment with Shell.”

Secretary Norton was also implicated during an investigation into her Deputy Secretary, J. Steven Griles. Griles, who was swept up in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal that enveloped Norton’s Interior Department, ultimately went to jail for his involvement in the affair. Separate from the Abramoff scandal, Griles was investigated by the Inspector General after sources alleged government contracts were steered by high-level Interior Department officials to companies associated with Griles. The Inspector General, Earl Devaney, issued a scathing review of Norton’s Interior Department in response to the Griles probe, telling a House subcommittee, “Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of the Interior.”

Fast forward more than a decade. Secretary Zinke’s actions at the Interior Department, and the investigations into the secretary’s conduct, signal that, once again, anything goes at the highest levels of the Interior Department. In an administration plagued by scandal and corruption — engulfing President Trump, his close aides, and many of his cabinet secretaries — it is easy to lose track of all the impropriety. Indeed, Secretary Zinke’s tenure at the Interior Department has been truly extraordinary — but not for the reasons he would like to be remembered for.

[This story has been updated as of June 5 to reflect a closed OSC investigation.]


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