Ranking U.S. House Democrats are calling for an ethics investigation into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. They want to know more about a land deal between Zinke’s family foundation and a real estate project with ties to the oil and gas giant Halliburton.
Politico first broke the story on a possibly unethical relationship between Zinke’s family foundation and a proposed real estate development in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana.
The unethicality of that relationship hinges on whether Zinke discussed the deal after his resignation from that family foundation when he became Interior Secretary. The Mountain West News Bureau has unearthed emails suggesting he was still involved in the deal.
A few years ago, Zinke’s foundation announced plans to build a public veteran’s park along with a public sledding hill and a skating pond on land it owned. None of that is completed yet and, in the meantime, the surrounding area has become a wealthy tourism hotbed.
The so-called “95 Karrow” project would be built right next to Zinke’s planned park along with some private properties he also owns – potentially jacking up the land value of both.
The mixed use real estate project would include a hotel, retail stores and a microbrewery. The latter is something Zinke has long lobbied for.
“It’s not a bar,” he said at a 2015 city council meeting. “It’s a microbrewery that closes at 8:00 p.m. You can only consume 48 ounces in 24 hours.”
The deal between the foundation and 95 Karrow would allow the project to build a shared parking lot on the land owned by Zinke’s family foundation.
But critics said 95 Karrow is backed by an investment group that includes David Lesar, the chairman and former CEO of Halliburton.
Craig Holman is with public watchdog group Private Citizen. He said a real estate deal that involves an oil man and a public servant who manages millions of acres of oil-rich federal land raises serious ethical questions.
“This is just unseemly for a government official – a cabinet official, no less – to enter into a business relationship with those that he is regulating,” he said.
But here’s where timing is everything.
Zinke said he resigned from the foundation after becoming Interior Secretary and now it’s managed by his wife, Lola Zinke.
The newly-surfaced emails are raising questions about that timing.
They show Zinke was still in touch with 95 Karrow’s chief project developer Casey Malmquist 6 months after he resigned from the foundation.
In those emails, Malmquist told Zinke, “our development project and your park plan are an absolute grand slam.”
According to Holman, that’s a smoking gun:
“What this email suggests is that Ryan Zinke was not removed from negotiations of the project,” he said. “Instead we are seeing the 95 Karrow project developers negotiating directly with Ryan Zinke.”
But Interior spokesperson Heather Swift said Zinke responded to Malmquist in his personal time and just to give him background information.
She said the two men spoke about the history of the park and the work that had gone into it before Zinke’s resignation.
Malmquist backed up that narrative. Furthermore, he said, when it comes to this land deal, the tie between Zinke and Halliburton chief David Lesar is purely circumstantial.
“This is a typical development scheme,” Malmquist said. “I have several investors. Dave and I have done several projects over time. He just invests money, he’s not operational in it. I’m the developer on this.”
Malmquist also charges that coverage of the land deal has been unfair.
“I think it was taking a bunch of disparate facts and sort of linking them together in an unusual way,” he said. “There’s an old phrase my father used to use that I’ve used several times in life: it’s ‘when you see hoof prints, think horses, not zebras.’ I think in this case they were seeing zebras.”
But ranking U.S. House Democrats don’t believe they’re seeing zebras.
On Thursday afternoon, they requested a federal ethics investigation into the land deal. They also uncovered more emails.
Those communications show that Zinke met with Malmquist and Halliburton chief David Lesar at his office.
That meeting also happened months after Zinke resigned from his family foundation.
Those documents do not show whether they spoke about the 95 Karrow project.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.