Some say that a business partnership between Halliburton and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke or his wife, Lola, would cross ethical lines. | POLITICO Illustration/AP Photos
WHITEFISH, Mont. — A foundation established by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and headed by his wife is playing a key role in a real-estate deal backed by the chairman of Halliburton, the oil-services giant that stands to benefit from any of the Interior Department’s decisions to open public lands for oil exploration or change standards for drilling.
A group funded by David Lesar, the Halliburton chairman, is planning a large commercial development on a former industrial site near the center of the Zinkes’ hometown of Whitefish, a resort area that has grown increasingly popular with wealthy tourists. The development would include a hotel and retail shops. There also would be a microbrewery — a business first proposed in 2012 by Ryan Zinke and for which he lobbied town officials for half a decade.
The Whitefish city planner, David Taylor, said in an interview that the project’s developer suggested to him that the microbrewery would be set aside for Ryan and Lola Zinke to own and operate, though the developer told POLITICO that no final decisions have been made.
Meanwhile, a foundation created by Ryan Zinke is providing crucial assistance. Lola Zinke pledged in writing to allow the Lesar-backed developer to build a parking lot for the project on land that was donated to the foundation to create a Veterans Peace Park for citizens of Whitefish. The 14-acre plot, which has not been significantly developed as a park, is still owned by the foundation. Lola Zinke is its president, a role her husband gave up when he became interior secretary.
The Zinkes stand to benefit from the project in another way: They own land on the other side of the development, and have long sparred with neighbors about their various plans for it. If the new hotel, retail stores and microbrewery go through, real estate agents say, the Zinke-owned land next door would stand to increase substantially in value.
Lesar, who also served as Halliburton’s chief executive until last year, is providing money to back the hotel and retail development, according to business records and officials at Whitefish city government and Halliburton. He also has a longstanding relationship with the Zinkes. In 2014, he and his wife, Sheryl, gave $10,400, the maximum allowed by law, to Zinke’s first House campaign. His only other federal contributions that year were to Halliburton’s PAC and the campaign of Rep. Liz Cheney, whose father, Dick, ran the company before becoming George W. Bush’s vice president.
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