Ryan Zinke’s Week of Reckoning: Scandals Roil Trump’s Interior Department

Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference on March 3, 2016, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana speaking at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference on March 3, 2016, in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

It’s been a tough week for Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke, and not just because there are two federal investigations into allegations that he illegally used taxpayer money for political campaigning and rides on private jets.

Zinke’s employees are also complaining about his political work and lavish travel habits, including a ride on a National Park Service boat to an island park in the Santa Barbara Channel with family members and two guests back in April. On Thursday, a whistleblower within the Interior Department named Joel Clement filed an angry resignation letter accusing Zinke of muzzling climate scientists and wasting taxpayer money in the process.

“Secretary Zinke: It is well known that you, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, and President Trump are shackled to special interests such as oil, gas, and mining,” wrote Clement, who blew the whistle earlier this year after being removed from a position as a climate scientist. “You are unwilling to lead on climate change, and cannot be trusted with our nation’s natural resources.”

But Zinke’s problems don’t end there; they extend into the policy realm. His attempt to spare oil and gas companies from Obama-era air pollution and fuel conservation regulations hit a major snag on Wednesday when a federal judge in San Francisco blocked an attempt by the Interior Department to place a one-year delay on the compliance date for the so-called methane rule. This ruling deals a major blow to the Trump administration’s deregulatory and pro-fossil-fuel agenda.

US District Magistrate for Northern California Elizabeth Laporte declared the Interior Department’s move unlawful just hours after Zinke’s agency announced plans to delay the rule in the Federal Register. The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had already issued a 90-day delay back in July, prompting a lawsuit from a number of environmental groups and the states of New Mexico and California. Laporte intervened this week when the BLM attempted to make a formal rulemaking that would have pushed the compliance date back to January 2019.

The methane rule that Zinke is trying to delay limits amount of raw natural gas fossil fuel companies can leak, vent and flare directly into the atmosphere when drilling on federal public lands, where they must pay royalties to the government for fossil fuels they produce. Before the Trump administration took over the agency and decided to reconsider the rule, the BLM estimated that taxpayers lost $23 million in royalties from natural gas released into the atmosphere on public lands each year.

The oil and gas industry challenged the methane rule in a separate lawsuit to avoid making costly infrastructure upgrades, arguing that the BLM has stepped outside of its jurisdictional bounds. Environmentalists point out that BLM had not upgraded its rules for venting and flaring gas in three decades.

In her ruling, Laporte wrote that the Interior Department’s reasoning for delaying the compliance date for the rule, which went into effect in January but allows the industry a year to upgrade equipment before it must comply, was “circular at best” and “contrary to the plain language of the statute” governing federal regulations. An attempt by the Environmental Protection Agency to delay its own Obama-era methane regulations was also recently struck down by the courts.

“This is lawless behavior,” wrote Meleah Geertsma, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a blog post this week. “The courts have repeatedly ruled that an agency cannot simply yank rules and regulations out of effect while it considers whether to change them.”

Laporte’s ruling was a victory for environmental groups and Western states seeking to reduce carbon emissions but another headache for Zinke, who is under fire from ethics watchdogs as well as his own employees for his extravagant travel habits and making political appearances while on Interior Department business.

Earlier this week, the US Office of Special Counsel confirmed that it was investigating whether Zinke had violated the Hatch Act when he gave a recent “motivational speech” to the Vegas Golden Knights, a National Hockey League team owned by Bill Foley, the chairman of Fidelity National Financial. Employees and political committees associated with the company donated $199,523 to Zinke’s two congressional campaigns, according to government watchdog Campaign for Accountability, which filed a complaint with the special counsel’s office last week.

After talking to the pro hockey players, Zinke spent $12,000 of his department’s funds to charter a jet owned by an oil and gas company and fly back to an airport near his home in Montana, according to reports. Earlier this year, he used private jets to hop around the Virgin Islands, where he reportedly attended a local political ceremony, a snorkeling tour and a GOP fundraiser.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General has also launched an investigation into Zinke’s political appearances and use of travel expenses. In a letter to the inspector general requesting the investigation on Wednesday, ranking members of the House Natural Resource Oversight and Investigations Committee said any taxpayer-funded travel for Zinke’s wife, Lola Zinke, should also be scrutinized because she is the campaign chair for a Senate candidate from Montana.

A spokesperson for the House Natural Resources Committee told Truthout that the inspector general’s investigation is ongoing.

Zinke’s alleged joy rides have not been limited to private jets. In mid-April, not long after taking office, Zinke ordered a National Park Service boat to pick him up at the Santa Barbara Harbor along with his aunt, wife and two local fishermen whom he classified as “technical experts,” according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that represents employees of the Interior Department and other agencies.

The boat took Zinke and his party to an island in the Channel Islands National Park, where his itinerary consisted largely of photo opportunities, a tour and a swearing-in of middle school students and Junior Park Rangers. The entire trip cost taxpayers at least $4,000.

“This ‘grip-and-grin’ tour is galling when the secretary is telling everyone else to tighten their belts,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who filed for the records after park service employees complained about the time and expense lost for no discernible purpose. “Taxpayers should not foot the bill for public officials acting as tourists.”

The Channel Islands National Park is often described as “the Galapagos Islands of North America” because it’s home to plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. However, according to records obtained by PEER, Zinke expressed interest in developing a ranching demonstration site there to highlight the area’s ranching heritage.

“Our major concern is that Ryan Zinke wants to turn this ecological jewel back into a game preserve,” Ruch said.

The investigations come amid increased scrutiny over the expense accounts and travel accommodations enjoyed by several top Trump administration officials, including Tom Price, who resigned from his position as secretary of Health and Human Services after outcry erupted over his use of private planes.

Zinke has called the allegations “a little BS,” and the Interior Department’s press officers have denied that Zinke and his wife have violated any ethics laws.