Ryan Zinke’s claims of ignorance are undermined by his own emails
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is attempting to deflect attention from the growing scandal around a development deal involving him, his wife Lola, and David Lesar, the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton — by claiming ignorance.
In Politico’s latest update on the proposed development in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, Zinke for the first time addresses the impending investigation directly, telling reporter Ben Lefebvre:
“Neither myself or my wife were involved in the city’s approval of the development that included among other facilities, a microbrewery on the developer’s property adjacent to the proposed parking lot. Neither my wife or I are involved with the building or operation of any planned microbrewery. Any suggestion to the contrary is absurd.”
But as Politico explains, Zinke has long dreamed of owning a brewpub. His plans date back six years, when he proposed a brewery on a property that he owns in Whitefish, run by a company he controls, Double Tap LLC. That property is adjacent to the lot where Halliburton chairman David Lesar and developer Casey Malmquist now want to build a brewpub, with help from a nonprofit founded by the Zinkes.
That makes the secretary’s latest denial almost laughable. Secretary Zinke may claim he’s not involved with the microbrewery, but his own emails suggest a different story.
Zinke hosted Lesar and Whitefish developer Casey Malmquist in his office last August, then took them on a private tour of the Lincoln Memorial. Lesar and Malmquist’s involvement was kept off Zinke’s official calendar at the time. (That’s also a pattern for Zinke.)
After that meeting, Malmquist sent an effusive email to Zinke, telling him “our development plan and your park project are an absolute grand slam.” Malmquist sent that to Zinke’s personal email account, which Zinke then forwarded to his assistant at her official government account.
Malmquist even included site plans for the development, which show the microbrewery immediately adjacent to the parking lot that the Zinkes would contribute to the project through their Great Northern Veterans Peace Park nonprofit:
In order to believe Zinke’s latest denial, you have to accept that he, after years of trying to open a microbrewery, invited a real estate developer and the chairman of Halliburton to his office, gave them a tour that’s not available to the public, then went to dinner at a beer hall, yet somehow did not discuss Zinke’s long-held brewpub dream in the four hours they spent together.
It’s an explanation that strains credulity.
Why should Westerners care about this development deal, and Zinke’s claims of innocence? First off, Halliburton is one of the largest oil services companies in the world, employing some 50,000 people. When oil and gas operations expand on American public lands, Halliburton makes money. When the Interior Department undermines safeguards placed on companies like Halliburton — like it did by repealing the 2015 fracking rule which protected land and water from hydraulic fracturing — Halliburton makes money.
Secretary Zinke’s unquestioning obedience to oil and gas companies leads directly to new business for Halliburton. When the chairman of Halliburton then steps in with a development deal that will personally benefit Ryan and Lola Zinke, it takes on the appearance of a quid pro quo, or as Vanity Fair asked in a headline, a straight up bribe.
Secondly, Zinke promised to run “the most transparent Interior” in his lifetime. The reality has been the complete opposite, with Zinke
- suspending local advisory councils;
- ignoring public comments from millions of Americans on national monuments, sage-grouse, and methane waste;
- and refusing to meet with his national parks advisory panel while stuffing new panels full of representatives from the RV, oil, and firearm industries.
Inviting potential business partners to his government office to discuss a development that he stands to personally profit from is completely consistent with the transactional way Zinke runs the Interior Department. It’s also consistent with a long government career in which Zinke has shown over and over again that he thinks the rules don’t apply to him.
As a Navy SEAL, Zinke got caught in a “pattern of fraud” by abusing government travel to go renovate his home in Montana. As Interior Secretary, he booked a $12,000 private plane to fly him home to Montana after giving a speech to his biggest political benefactor, and failed to document his wife’s travel on government trips.
And he’s under investigation for repeatedly violating the Hatch Act’s ban on mixing political and official events, from a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, to a GOP fundraiser in the Virgin Islands, to an official tweet showing him wearing “Make America Great Again” socks. Just last month, Zinke appeared in his official capacity alongside Vice President Mike Pence at a rally for Montana senate candidate Matt Rosendale.
Ryan Zinke has long claimed his role model is Teddy Roosevelt. But the growing list of investigations and examples of terrible judgment suggest he’s actually following in the footsteps of one of his contemporaries — disgraced EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
As Slate noted last month, after Pruitt’s departure, Ryan Zinke “is the most scandal-ridden cabinet member left.” Unless he comes clean quickly, he may soon find himself with plenty of time to enjoy his treasured microbrews.