August 9, 2018
Since taking office in March 2017, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has emerged as one of the most ethically dubious members of President Trump’s Cabinet. While he has yet to beat Scott Pruitt’s record of 16 federal investigations into alleged misconduct, he has quickly collected ethics scandals.
CREW found that Zinke has racked up 14 federal investigations into his behavior since becoming Secretary. While a few of these investigations have cleared Zinke of wrongdoing, many remain ongoing, and — perhaps most concerning — several were closed or were inconclusive due to a lack of cooperation with the probe or the Interior Department’s failure to keep proper records.
Here’s a guide to the investigations into Ryan Zinke’s scandals ranging from the uniquely bizarre to the second coming of Scott Pruitt.
Ongoing investigations into alleged misconduct by Zinke
Despite the various scandals he has already faced, Zinke continues to engage in ethically questionable behavior. Most recently, he triggered a fourth Hatch Act investigation by the Office of Special Counsel by tweeting a photo on his government account that included President Trump’s political slogan. Zinke is currently the subject of six open investigations by federal agencies and Congress.
1. Blocked casino project after meeting with lobbyists, Department of Interior Office of Inspector General (Inspector General)
The Interior Department blocked a casino project proposed by the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes after Zinke met with MGM lobbyists. Documents later revealed that by doing so, Interior had rejected recommendations from federal experts. The Inspector General has opened an investigation.
2. Potential Hatch Act violation: Florida drilling announcement, Office of Special Counsel (OSC)
Zinke announced at a press conference with Florida governor Rick Scott that he would exempt Florida from the administration’s offshore drilling expansion, raising concerns that the action was politically motivated in light of Scott’s speculated Senate run. OSC confirmed it had opened a case file on the issue.
3. Censorship in a climate change report, Inspector General
A National Park Service report deleted any mentions of humans’ role in causing climate change shortly after Zinke testified to Congress he would not censor scientific reports. The Inspector General opened an investigation.
4. Potential Hatch Act violation: Make America Great Again socks, OSC
Zinke tweeted a picture of himself wearing socks with President Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign slogan using his official Twitter account. OSC had previously instructed White House officials to avoid wearing or displaying the MAGA slogan while on duty. OSC confirmed that it had opened a case file into Zinke’s tweet.
5. Real estate and microbrewery deal with an oil services executive, Inspector General
The Inspector General opened an investigation into Zinke’s involvement in a land deal with the executive of Halliburton, an oil services company directly affected by Interior Department policies. Halliburton is involved in a land deal with a foundation previously headed by Zinke and now headed by Zinke’s wife. The deal also includes building a microbrewery, a project Zinke has long been interested in.
6. Spending $139,000 in taxpayer funds for office doors, House Oversight Committee
Following reports that the Interior Department would spend nearly $139,000 to replace three sets of doors, House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) requested a briefing from the Interior Department on plans to replace the doors, as well as documentation of the purchase. It is unclear if this inquiry is still ongoing.
Closed or inconclusive investigations due to a lack of cooperation or records
A concerning number of investigations into alleged misconduct by Zinke were forced to close or found inconclusive results. For example, in several of these probes, the Interior Department was found to have improperly documented important decisions that would later come under investigation.
7. Alleged threat to Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AL) during the healthcare debate, Inspector General
The day after Alaska’s Sen. Murkowski voted against beginning debate on overturning the Affordable Care Act, Zinke called Sen. Murkowski and told her that her vote might have negative consequences on her state. The Interior Department’s Inspector General opened an investigation, but was forced to drop the probe after Sen. Murkowski refused to be interviewed or provide a statement.
8. Alleged threat to Sen. Murkowski during the healthcare debate,Government Accountability Office
The Government Accountability Office opened its own probe into Zinke’s alleged threat following Sen. Murkowski’s healthcare vote, but it was also forced to close its probe, stating that the Interior Department refused to cooperate.
9. Staff reassignments that may have been politically motivated, Inspector General
In an unusual move, the Interior Department reassigned dozens of Senior Executive Service members, triggering concerns that the move was politically motivated. The Inspector General found that the Interior Department reassigned officials without clear criteria, and since there was no documented action plan, it could not determine whether the reassignments complied with the legal requirements.
10. Potentially improper chartered flights, Inspector General
Zinke faced scrutiny for three taxpayer-funded chartered flights, including a $12,000 flight on an oil executive’s plane. The Inspector General found that Zinke’s flights generally followed guidelines, but that staffers did not provide complete information to ethics officials on his $12,000 flight.
11. Halted mining study, Inspector General
Zinke halted a $1 million study into the health impact of a mining technique used in Appalachia. The Inspector General reported that when it asked the Interior Department to produce evidence to explain its decision, it was unable to do so.
Investigations that have cleared Zinke of misconduct
Although Zinke has been cleared in a handful of Hatch Act investigations, as noted above, he remains under investigation by OSC for violating the law.
12. Potential Hatch Act violation: National Hockey League speech, OSC (Office of Special Counsel)
The Office of Special Counsel investigated whether Ryan Zinke’s speech to the Vegas Golden Knights violated the Hatch Act, which forbids government officials from using their official positions to make political statements. The owner of the Knights was a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign. OSC found that Zinke did not violate the Hatch Act.
13. Potential Hatch Act violation: Virgin Islands political fundraiser, OSC (Office of Special Counsel)
During a taxpayer-funded trip to the Virgin Islands, Zinke attended a political fundraiser for the local Republican party. The Office of Special Counsel cleared Zinke of violating the Hatch Act.
14. Potential Hatch Act violation: Seven additional trips that combined official and political activity, OSC (Office of Special Counsel)
The Office of Special Counsel also found that Zinke did not violate the Hatch Act in another seven trips he took between March 2017 and October 2017.