Interior officials expressed alarm early about Zinke’s ethics

By Corbin Hiar | 09/11/2023 01:21 PM EDT

Documents shed new light on the ethical concerns that clouded the tenure of former President Donald Trump’s first Interior secretary.

Ryan Zinke.

Ryan Zinke testifies during his confirmation hearing to be Interior secretary before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 17, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Interior Department staffers raised questions early during the Trump administration about then-Secretary Ryan Zinke’s commingling of his public and private lives, newly released documents show — nearly two years before his alleged conflicts of interest helped push him out of the Cabinet.

The documents, obtained under a 6-year-old Freedom of Information Act request by POLITICO’s E&E News, underscore how foreseeable — and avoidable — Zinke’s ethical troubles at Interior were. Their release comes as his tumultuous stint atop the agency looms as a potential issue in his reelection campaign for a U.S. House seat in Montana.

Career ethics officials’ concerns included the unusually active role that Zinke’s wife, Lolita, was playing at Interior, where she often accompanied her husband on work travel and sat in on department meetings despite having no official position there, according to the 2017 documents and subsequent reporting and investigations. Lolita Zinke was simultaneously in charge of two family-run businesses, Continental Divide International LLC and Double Tap LLC, the lawyers noted, along with a nonprofit foundation that Ryan Zinke had co-founded.


The two companies and the foundation would later figure in a controversy that POLITICO first uncovered five years ago: Zinke’s involvement in a proposed real estate development project with the then-chair of Halliburton Co., a major oil field services firm that stood to benefit from the Interior Department’s Trump-era energy policies.

Interior’s inspector general issued a report last year castigating Zinke’s handling of the real estate project, accusing him of misusing his office, failing to “abide by his ethics obligations,” and making “inaccurate and incomplete statements” about his involvement in the deal — though it did not find that he had broken the law or taken “any official action to specifically benefit the Halliburton Company.”

The inspector general’s office referred the matter to the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute, the inspector general wrote.

The newly released documents show that, long before that deal came to light, the Interior staffers expressed alarm that the secretary was failing to erect a firewall between his personal interests and the duties of his sprawling, powerful department. The employees also worried that people with a stake in the department’s decisions could use Lolita Zinke as a conduit for influencing her husband’s policies.

The lawyers noted that Ryan Zinke hadn’t totally separated himself from Continental Divide and Double Tap, despite promising to resign as a managing member of the companies after being confirmed as secretary.

“While the Secretary no longer holds a management position in Continental Divide, LLC, or Double Tap, LLC, he retains a financial interest in both entities” through his wife, Interior ethics attorney Edward McDonnell wrote in anApril 2017 email to his bosses. “If, as a result of her accompanying the Secretary, Mrs. Zinke obtains access to information or is in a position to take an action that could affect the financial interest of either entity, this could be problematic.”

Some people “may attempt to gain access to, or preferential treatment by, the Secretary or other Government officials on matters through Mrs. Zinke, though she would have no official role in the matter,” he warned. “I think that the longer this continues and the greater her presence/participation, the greater the risk of a violation of the appearance of a violation.”

The new documents could remind Montanans of Ryan Zinke’s record on ethics.

But Erik Iverson, the head of the polling firm the Moore Information Group who’s working on Zinke’s reelection bid, argued that the state’s voters aren’t concerned about his alleged lapses.

“He won an election in 2022 that was centered solely upon this issue,” Iverson said. “So if this is the Democrats’ great hope to beat Ryan Zinke in 2024, that’s welcome news because it’s been there, done that. It didn’t work for them because voters didn’t buy it.”

Zinke’s House press secretary, Colton Snedecor, insisted in an email that ethics officials had determined all his actions “to be both legal and ethical,” despite the scathing inspector general findings and Justice Department referral.

“Any legal or ethical allegations that suggest otherwise will be vigorously defended with a defamation suit,” he wrote. “Lawyers standing by.”

The chief of staff in his congressional office, longtime Zinke aide Heather Swift, responded to a reporter’s inquiry with a question of her own: “Did you cry when Ryan Zinke was reelected last year?”

Lolita Zinke did not respond to a request for comment.

Ryan Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, previously served in the House from 2015 to 2017 before joining former President Donald Trump’s Cabinet as Interior secretary. The Montana Republican returned to the House after last year’s election.

In the newly released documents, other career Interior officials expressed concerns that echoed McDonnell’s unease about Lolita Zinke’s role.

In May 2017, former Assistant Solicitor Edward Keable, who ran the agency’s ethics office at the time, sent a draft memo to McDonnell “regarding Mrs. Zinke attending meetings with the Secretary.”

Keable said he had “been asked to finalize” the memo and sought McDonnell’s thoughts and help with legal citations. “Please consider whether there is a more direct way to articulate the ethics concern,” added Keable, who is now superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park.

The entire text of the draft memo was blacked out in the copy that Interior provided to E&E News. The document indicates it was intended for Daniel Jorjani, whom Trump had chosen to serve as Interior’s top lawyer.

It’s unclear from the documents whether Jorjani, who is now deputy general counsel at the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, ever received the finalized memo. He did not respond to questions.

But later news reports and government investigations found Jorjani and Keable were in regular contact about Ryan Zinke’s ethics issues.

A month after McDonnell’s April 2017 email, E&E News reported on ethical concerns posed by Lolita Zinke’s roles at Continental Divide, Double Tap and the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation. (Jorjani asked Keable’s team to prepare a draft response for that story, the documents show.)

Then, in June 2018, POLITICO revealed that a group funded by David Lesar, the Halliburton leader, was planning a large commercial development that involved land controlled by Lolita Zinke’s foundation and would have benefited her two LLCs. (Lesar is now the CEO of the utility firm CenterPoint Energy.)

The project, in Ryan Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont., would have included a hotel, retail shops and microbrewery. POLITICO reported that the Zinkes had expressed interest years earlier in opening and operating a microbrewery in Whitefish that they would have called Double Tap — a Navy SEAL term for two gunshots — though Ryan Zinke denied any involvement in the Lesar-backed brewery plans.

Lolita Zinke used her role as the foundation’s president to assist the development project by pledging to let it use some of the nonprofit’s land for a parking lot, POLITICO wrote in 2018. The two LLCs owned land parcels nearby that could have increased in value if the project had been built.

POLITICO also reported that in August 2017, Ryan Zinke met at Interior’s headquarters with Lesar and other developers involved in the Montana project, before discussing the real estate deal with them at dinner later that night.

Besides examining the aborted real estate project, the inspector general looked into the secretary’s taxpayer-funded trips with Lolita Zinke and questions about whether he had improperly blocked two Native American tribes from opening a casino in Connecticut.

In December 2018, Trump announced that Zinke would be leaving his administration.

Zinke cited the cost of “defending myself and my family against false allegations” as one of the reasons he had agreed to step down.

After leaving the Cabinet, he worked with gold mining and cybersecurity firms, then in April 2021 entered the race to fill a newly created House seat representing the more liberal western half of Montana. He won the Republican primary by less than 2 percentage points and then eked out a 3-percentage-point victory over Democratic candidate Monica Tranel, a former staff attorney for Montana’s utility regulator.

During that campaign, the Interior Department’s inspector general released two reports saying that Zinke had misled agency investigators reviewing the Lesar land project and the Connecticut casino. The latter probe concerned allegations that Zinke was acting at the behest of lobbyists for MGM Resorts International, which owned a competing casino, and lawmakers from Nevada.

Tranel, who has announced her plan to run again against Zinke, made questions about his character a key focus of that tight race.

“He embarrassed us,” she told POLITICO in 2022. “He hasn’t said, ‘I’ve changed,’ or whatever. He doesn’t deny wrongdoing. He just says it’s a witch hunt.”

Zinke holds one of only 31 Republican seats that the elections analysis firm The Cook Political Report considers to be in play next year. It rates the race as “likely Republican.”

The 2024 elections will occur with control of the governor’s mansion, the White House and Congress at stake — and Sen. Jon Tester, the lone Democrat in Montana to hold statewide office, seeking another term.

Reporter Ben Lefebvre contributed.