With Ryan Zinke poised to win Senate confirmation to become the next Interior secretary, some are wondering whether Democrats are pulling their punches.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee is expected to clear Zinke’s nomination today, and he’s not expected to face trouble winning the full chamber’s approval.
But the Montana Republican congressman has been at the center of a controversy surrounding reports that he committed travel fraud during his time as a Navy SEAL. He’s also at the center of a lawsuit alleging that he failed to pay his rent to a Washington, D.C., church that owned his rental home.
But those matters haven’t been pressed by Senate Democrats, spurring some to wonder whether critics of the Trump administration are holding their fire when it comes to Zinke. The congressman was a surprise pick for the job, and he’s seen as more moderate on public lands issues than many of the other contenders who were thought to be in the running to be President Trump’s Interior nominee.
Democrats "could do a lot worse, probably," said Don Barry, a former longtime Interior official who served as assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks during the Clinton administration.
Barry said he wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats were biting their tongues when it comes to Zinke. Other potential Interior appointees could be "terminally bad," Barry said. And "at the end of the day, you can only take on so many battles."
During his confirmation hearing, Zinke wasn’t grilled on the travel fraud allegations or about an ongoing lawsuit over unpaid rent that he disclosed in a questionnaire to the committee earlier this month.
Some had expected tougher questions of Zinke during the confirmation process.
"There are several questions that have come up about Congressman Zinke’s record," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a former Obama Interior official who’s now at the Center for American Progress. He said it’s unclear whether these are minor lapses from Zinke or "symptomatic of broader ethical problems."
"Any nominee should be required to be up front about these kinds of issues that they have and to resolve them before they’re confirmed," Lee-Ashley added. "So far, he has not been asked about them nor has he provided a clear explanation about the investigation of his travel practices in the Navy."
Zinke has faced allegations that he committed fraud by submitting travel vouchers to the Navy for trips back to Montana to renovate his home (Greenwire, Dec. 21, 2016).
Zinke said he’d traveled to Montana to scope out training sites and then went on leave to work on restoring his grandparents’ house in Montana. He called the incident a "glitch" in his record as a SEAL. He ended up having to repay $211 in unauthorized expenses, he wrote in his book, "American Commander" (Greenwire, Jan. 16).
Zinke also told the committee this month that he’s involved in a "landlord-tenant dispute" pending in the D.C. Superior Court.
In that lawsuit, the Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Washington, D.C., is suing Zinke and his wife, Lolita, for breaching their residential lease agreement.
The church claims that the Zinkes failed to pay rent for the full year of their lease, abandoning the property three months after moving in. The church is seeking more than $66,000 in unpaid rent, including late fees.
The Zinkes argue that the property wasn’t safe and caused injuries to them and to Lolita Zinke’s mother, who was ill at the time. They cited problems like uneven floors and staircases, a slippery front porch and a broken furnace in February.
Senate Democrats have pressed Zinke on some ethics issues during the confirmation process.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, pressed Zinke in written questions over his ties to a super PAC, which a 2014 Federal Election Commission complaint alleged made improper contributions to his congressional campaign. She also asked him whether he planned to sever ties with his leadership PAC, another fundraising committee (Greenwire, Jan. 30).
And other committee Democrats yesterday said Zinke isn’t getting a pass on ethical issues.
"Absolutely not by me," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). "There’s a whole bunch of things, policywise and otherwise on him."
She added, "I think that there’s more that could be done on all the nominees, frankly, in terms of conflicts of interest."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said of Zinke, "We’re continuing to look at a variety of questions." He said he couldn’t comment on the specifics, but "there are unanswered questions we’re still looking at."
Reporters Brittany Patterson and Corbin Hiar contributed.