“Da Dinky Zinke continues to sink further and further into the quagmire of government corruption…”
A man who appeared drunk and was staying at Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s house impersonated the secretary and then called U.S. Park Police officers to respond to a confrontation in his Washington, D.C., neighborhood Monday night, witnesses told POLITICO.
The Interior Department blamed the incident on “suspicious” people who interrupted a home barbecue by lurking outside Zinke’s home and yelling profanities about President Donald Trump — which neighbors said did not happen. But a government ethics expert said it raised new questions about whether the secretary was using government resources for personal purposes.
Neighbors said the incident began when they noticed a black Mercedes with New York license plates idling for several hours outside a residence Zinke has rented since he was a member of Congress. It is unclear why the Park Police, who are part of the Interior Department, were called to the home rather than the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. The home is around the corner from Lincoln Park, a small square overseen by the National Park Service.
Paul Legere, who lives next door, said he asked the driver of the Mercedes to move the car, which was blocking several parking spaces on the crowded street. The driver refused to move, and the two got into an argument around 9 p.m. Monday, Legere said.
As Legere and the driver were exchanging words, a man exited the house. He “comes to my window and says, ‘I’m Secretary Zinke, and this is my house, and that is my driver,’” Legere recalled in an interview Tuesday morning.
Legere said the man appeared to have been drinking and would give only his first name, Scott. Scott called the U.S. Park Service Police, then told the driver to leave, which he did, Legere said. About five minutes later, another vehicle dropped off one more man, who went into Zinke’s house carrying two bags, and five minutes after that the Park Police showed up in two SUVs, “fully riot-geared out,” Legere said.
After questioning Legere and other witnesses, the Park Police told neighbors that the man was authorized to be in Zinke’s house and then left. Not long after that, the Mercedes returned and picked up the men from Zinke’s home and drove off, Legere said. The witnesses said they did not see Zinke at any point during the incident.
“I’m still pretty annoyed at this person pretending to be Zinke to intimidate a neighbor, and then calling the Park Police for protection, but I guess that’s just me,” Regina Arlotto, another resident of the neighborhood who witnessed the incident, wrote in an email listserv for residents of the Lincoln Park section of D.C. “Nothing makes sense anymore.”
Arlotto confirmed her account in an interview with POLITICO.
An Interior spokesperson said Zinke was home at the time and that he was the one who called the Park Police.
“Secretary Zinke and his friends were watching football and BBQing at home last night. Zinke called his security detail with concerns about a suspicious individual staking out his home and guests. While waiting for the USPP to arrive, another individual began yelling profanities in the street about the President and the Secretary,” spokesperson Faith Vander Voort said in a statement. “The Secretary remained inside his home the entire night while the USPP responded.”
Legere and Arlotto disputed the department’s statement. “Ha! Nothing about that is true,” Legere wrote in an email.
Arlotto, who lives two doors away, said she doubted Zinke was home because his car was not parked out front as it typically is when he’s at the house, and she said she neither smelled smoke from a grill nor noticed any activity outside.
“I know for a fact no one at all yelled profanities about the President OR the Secretary,” she wrote in an email. “We had all gone into our houses and I was sitting in my bay window, and heard nothing. The next thing I knew was that the USPP were outside on the sidewalk. And if Zinke was there, the police officers didn’t act like it. Instead the [sergeant] said that guy was ‘authorized’ to ‘stay’ in the house? it was very strangely worded.”
A Park Police spokesperson, Sgt. Eduardo Delgado, confirmed that officers had been dispatched to Zinke’s address Monday night but said he could not immediately release a copy of the police report before it was reviewed to see whether any information needed to be redacted. Delgado said he was unsure why uniformed Park Police officers responded instead of Zinke’s security detail; he said it was possible the officers were already in the area patrolling Lincoln Park.
Local D.C. police were not involved, said Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson Alaina Gertz. The park police would be the lead agency involved if they were first called, but Gertz expressed confusion at their involvement.
“I don’t know why in this scenario why they would call them instead of 911,” Gertz added.
If the guest made use of the park police with Zinke’s knowledge, it could be construed as Zinke using his office for personal gain, said Marilyn Glynn, who was acting director of the Office of Government Ethics under former President George W. Bush.
“In a case like this, the ‘private gain’ is the benefit that would accrue to the Secretary and his guest by keeping the neighbors off his back and keeping the incident out of the news,” Glynn said. “Using agency employees for private matters has occurred in the past with other [executive branch] employees — e.g., picking up laundry, babysitting kids — but has always been recognized as an abuse of office.”
Zinke has come under fire in the past over accusations of questionable uses of park police staff and Interior Department resources.
The secretary used a park police helicopter to fly him from official events outside D.C. back to the capital in time to make personal meetings, including a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence, as first reported by POLITICO. In August 2017, he also brought park police as security with him and his wife on personal travel to Turkey and Greece, a move that cost taxpayers about $25,000, according to a recent Interior inspector general’s report.
He also used park police to transport family members and friends, according to the same IG report. In 2017, he used a park police boat to take family on a tour of the Channel Islands in California and the Statue of Liberty in New York, according to the report. He also had his security detail drive a friend to an airport, despite knowing they could not do so without the secretary in the vehicle, the report says.
The house belongs to Cynthia Kennard, executive director at the philanthropic Annenberg Foundation, and Vittorio Morandin, according to D.C. public records. The pair rent out the property, records show.
Neighbors said Zinke moved into the house soon after he was elected as Montana’s sole member of Congress in 2014, but he has been seen in the neighborhood only sporadically over the past several months.
Kennard and Morandin could not be reached for comment, and an Annenberg spokesperson did not reply to questions.
The Mercedes that was parked out front is linked to a New York-based Uber driver, according to a search of the license plate number in public records. A voicemail left at a phone number included in those records was not immediately returned Monday.
No one answered the door of the house when a reporter knocked Tuesday morning.