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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in 2016, when he served as a congressman for Montana. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/cc)

'Outrageous and Unprecedented': Ethical Violation Alarm Bells Over Zinke Foundation Deal With Halliburton Head

"This is all a perfect encapsulation of how Ryan Zinke has operated at Interior—being deceitful about intent, and always seeing how he can personally benefit," said one critic

Jessica Corbett

Ethics experts as well as environmental and veterans advocates expressed alarm Tuesday over an exclusive Politico report that a foundation founded by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke—the man charged with making rules about fossil fuel production on public lands—and now run by his wife is set to benefit from a Montana real estate project funded by the chairman of Halliburton, one of the world's largest oil companies.

Detailing the Zinke family's involvement with the multimillion-dollar project, which ethics experts say "is rife with conflicts of interest," Politico reports:

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.

...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.

As Craig Holman, an expert in federal ethics law at the advocacy group Public Citizen, explained to Politico: "Clearly, any substantial development project next to the vacant lot owned by Zinke's foundation would significantly boost the value of the lot. The conflict-of-interest statute would be invoked if even the nonprofit on which Zinke or his spouse serves as an officer, as either paid or unpaid officers, derives a financial benefit."

Garett Reppenhagen, Western states director for the Vet Voice Foundation, concluded, "This is all a perfect encapsulation of how Ryan Zinke has operated at Interior—being deceitful about intent, and always seeing how he can personally benefit."

"The number of #ZinkeScandals in this single story is astounding," tweeted the Sierra Club.

Friends of the Earth connected the report to Zinke's efforts to roll back rules about drilling for fossil fuels on public lands or in U.S. coastal waters.

"Secretary Zinke's foundation appears to be nothing more than a P.O. Box in Whitefish and now he's apparently using it to help a private developer at our expense," responded Chris Saeger, executive director of the Whitefish-based Western Values Project. "This is just the latest example of Zinke attempting to personally benefit from a resource that should benefit the public. There should be an investigation into this swampy relationship."

Marilyn Glynn, who served as acting director of the Office of Government Ethics under former President George W. Bush, told Politico that Zinke should "recuse himself from anything involving Halliburton," and suggested that such blatant disregard for ethics conflicts is unique to the Trump administration.

Zinke, in a statement to Politico, declined to address questions about the microbrewery or Lesar's involvement with the project, but said, "The mission remains to provide a children's sledding park and community open space in a setting that recognizes the contributions of the railroad and the veterans to the community." He added that although his wife has been in contact with the developer about building a parking lot, "no formal proposal or documents have been submitted or agreed upon."

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