If you followed our last series on Medium, Wasted Resources, you know the Republican majority on the Natural Resources Committee has spent the past 18 months focusing on the wrong things, asking industry spokespeople how to run the Interior Department, ignoring Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s multiple scandals, and generally not acting in the public interest. If you haven’t checked it out yet, head on over and give it a few minutes. As we said when we kicked it off, it’s a sad story, but it needs to be told.
There’s more to say on that front — there always is — but thanks to recent developments, it’s time to pivot a bit.
Watchdog, to put it bluntly, is about those Zinke scandals Republicans keep ignoring. There’s been so much coverage of his ethical failures in the past few days, from so many outlets, speaking to so many different sources, that even seasoned Zinke watchers could use a handy guide. That’s why we’re here.
Some of this story has been told elsewhere. If you follow the Department of the Interior (DOI) closely, you’ll be familiar with the outline. But nobody is as up-to-the-minute and as thorough as Watchdog. We’re connecting the dots in real time.
Let’s start with the latest — which, for just a moment, actually takes us back to Aug. 3, 2017.
That afternoon, Secretary Zinke met in his secretarial office for about an hour and a half with David Lesar, the chairman of oil contractor Halliburton; David’s son John; and Montana property developer Casey Malmquist. We only know this happened thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request — Zinke’s official schedule for that block of time only says “HOLD,” and none of these meeting attendees are listed there. We’ll get back to that.
What’s so interesting about that meeting? All three of Zinke’s guests that afternoon are financial partners behind the development of a project in Zinke’s home town of Whitefish, Mont., known as 95 Karrow, which would increase the value of land owned by a foundation controlled by Zinke’s family. Zinke himself is reported to be interested in owning a microbrewery that would be part of the development.
Zinke tried to hide this meeting and the guest list from the public, which is why Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) and Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) requested a DOI inspector general (IG) investigation on June 21 of this year.
A few days earlier, on June 19, Politico reported that Lesar and Zinke had a personal and financial relationship. The lawmakers’ letter requesting an investigation revealed for the first time that Lesar, his son, and Mr. Malmquist were at the August 2017 meeting — and that Zinke subsequently took them on a personal tour of the Lincoln Memorial that evening and then took them out to dinner. If you want a fuller sense of what we know about this deal and where this information came from, read the letter here.
About a month later, on July 18, the DOI IG confirmed that it would investigate the Zinke-Lesar connection. For a few months, everything went quiet as the IG’s staff went about their work.
Then, a few days ago, everything started to break wide open. On Oct. 30, the Washington Post and CNN reported that one of Secretary Zinke’s scandals – they didn’t yet know which – had been referred to the Department of Justice (DOJ). Cabinet secretaries don’t get referred to federal law enforcement unless something serious turns up.
As of this publication, Zinke remains in office, but his seat is getting pretty hot. On the evening of Nov. 1, the Washington Post reported that the White House — that’s Donald Trump’s White House — is concerned that Zinke’s ethical lapses may be a bridge too far:
The White House is growing increasingly concerned about allegations of misconduct against Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, according to two senior administration officials, and President Trump has asked aides for more information about a Montana land deal under scrutiny by the Justice Department.
Trump told his aides he is afraid Zinke has broken rules while serving as the Interior Secretary and is concerned about the Justice Department referral, according to the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
What makes this especially interesting is that just a few weeks ago, Zinke apparently tried to replace Mary Kendall, the acting DOI inspector general, with a Trump political appointee who has no investigative experience. This was bad enough on its face — the woman didn’t seem qualified — but, as these things tend to do in the Trump administration, it quickly got even worse.
On Friday, Oct. 12, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Ben Carson sent an email to HUD staff titled “A Fond Farewell” saying that Suzanne Israel Tufts, his assistant secretary for administration, was leaving the Department to become the new DOI IG. For several days nothing happened. Then, on Tuesday, Oct. 16, word got out — and it didn’t take long to spread.
The Hill was the first to report that Tufts was taking over for Kendall, who has been acting DOI IG for nearly a decade. This wasn’t just informed speculation: a HUD spokesperson confirmed to reporter Miranda Green that Tufts would soon be the new acting IG. Why you’d replace one acting IG with another wasn’t immediately clear.
Then NBC News filled out some of the details, including the important context of the multiple Zinke-related investigations the IG’s office is currently conducting that have been publicly disclosed.
Interior employees claimed that Ben Carson — the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development — was to blame because he was making things up and no transfer was happening and they had no idea what anyone was talking about.
Ranking Member Grijalva, as you might imagine, was not buying this story.
Just a few hours later, as the Washington Post first reported, the IG’s office, still under Mary Kendall’s leadership, released a very troubling report . . . on Ryan Zinke.
The IG found that Zinke had tied the Interior Department in knots for months trying to get his wife’s travel expenses paid by taxpayers even though she wasn’t an Interior employee. As the Post reported:
Zinke confirmed to investigators that he had directed his staff to research the possibility of giving his wife a volunteer job at Interior, a move that one ethics official objected to on the grounds that it was designed so that Zinke wouldn’t “have to pay” for his wife’s travel. Zinke subsequently “denied that it was an effort to circumvent the requirement to reimburse the DOI for her travel,” the report states.
There was more to the report:
- Zinke invited the hosts of one of his congressional fundraisers on an official, publicly funded trip to California’s Channel Islands National Park without telling DOI lawyers about the relationship.
- Zinke and his wife chose to travel to Greece and Turkey last summer for a private vacation, even though it would cost taxpayers $25,000 because a security detail was needed.
- Zinke regularly had his wife travel with him in government vehicles on official business despite it violating DOI practice. Zinke later had the rule changed to match his preference instead of taking a good governance stance and keeping it in place.
BuzzFeed noted that while the findings were damaging for Zinke, DOI spokespeople had “attacked reporters for jumping on the story,” which only compounded the damage.
Emily Atkin at The New Republic offered a Cliff’s Notes version of the whole strange affair. Once all this came out, even before we knew about the DOJ referral, Ryan Zinke sounded like a man who might want a new IG to take some of the pressure off.
The only reason the Suzanne Tufts move didn’t ultimately occur, as far as anyone can tell, is public scrutiny, which is a good reminder of why the Trump administration so often punches back at journalistic coverage of its actions. And in a fitting reminder of the old Rick Wilson idiom “Everything Trump Touches Dies” — see here if you’re not familiar with it — Suzanne Tufts is now out of a job.
That’s right — instead of finding Suzanne Tufts a new role in the Trump administration or clarifying what she was doing at HUD all that time, Secretary Carson on Oct. 18 accepted Tufts’ resignation. By that point, it wasn’t clear to anyone (even the reporter who initially broke the story) what had happened behind the scenes.
Where does that leave us? Well, Mary Kendall is still head of the DOI IG office — for now. Now that this has come out into the open, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt is demanding a “presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed individual” to run the IG operation. Mr. Grijalva has called for the same thing. President Obama nominated Mary Kendall to be the permanent IG in 2015, but Republicans attacked her, then refused to confirm her. What nobody wants (except the administration, perhaps) is another attempt to replace Mary Kendall with another acting IG. That just smells like a cover-up.
You have to wonder, what really happened behind the scenes here?
As far as we can tell from what’s been reported so far, the recent timeline goes like this:
- About a week before Sec. Carson sent his email to HUD staff about Suzanne Tufts, the DOI IG referred portions of the Halliburton matter to DOJ. The IG’s own investigation is ongoing.
- Carson sends his email on Oct. 12. At this point, it’s likely (though not certain) that some White House staff are aware of Zinke’s DOJ referral.
- For a few days, Zinke probably thinks he’s getting a new IG.
- On Oct. 18, the Tufts announcement is reversed and the IG report on Zinke’s travel expenses is publicized.
- On Oct. 31, news of Zinke’s DOJ referral breaks into the open.
- On Nov. 1, the Washington Post confirms that the referral is over the Halliburton case, which Reps. Grijalva, McEachin and Huffman first raised with the IG back in June.
The thing is, there’s a lot to investigate when it comes to Ryan Zinke. That’s what Watchdog is all about. Zinke’s spokeswoman claims the Halliburton meeting was done on Zinke’s “personal time,” so we’ll see how long that explanation holds up.
Stay with us as Watchdog progresses. It’ll be a fun ride.