In the end, maybe the White House and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke should have replaced the department’s acting inspector general with a political appointee from Ben Carson’s fabulously furnished Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Interior’s acting IG, Mary Kendall, has referred one of its several investigations into Zinke to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, and, the Washington Post reports, the White House is “concerned” about Zinke, one of its most loyal, and ambitious, Cabinet secretaries.
“Trump told his aides that he is afraid Zinke has broken rules while serving as the interior secretary and is concerned about the Justice Department referral,” the Post reported.
The referral is reportedly about a development project funded by the chairman of Halliburton, David Lesar, in Whitefish, Montana, where Zinke and his wife lived and own property. Zinke’s foundation agreed in 2017 to provide use of its land for part of the development. The Zinkes also own two companies with land near the project, which could then go up in value when it’s completed. At the same time, Halliburton, the oil services giant, stands to gain if Zinke and the administration are successful in opening up more federal land for energy development.
The inspector general started looking into the deal in June after congressional Democrats requested an investigation. Politico reported in June that a foundation founded by Zinke and run by his wife, Lola, was “providing crucial assistance” to the development project, which would include retail space and a hotel. For one, Lola, “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 Post also reported in June that Zinke “has continued to meet with Lesar, his son and the lead project developer, Casey Malmquist, since taking office,” and a calendar released under the Freedom of Information Action showed that last summer the project’s developer “wrote the secretary about the development and solicited his input on its design.”
The Whitefish development is the subject of just one of many investigations and probes dogging Zinke’s tenure. The inspector general is also reportedly looking at “his decision not to grant a permit to two Connecticut tribes to jointly run a casino, despite the fact that career staff had recommended the move, after MGM Resorts International lobbied against it,” the Post reported, as well as “whether Interior officials redrew the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to benefit Utah Rep. Mike Noel (R), who owns property in the area.”
If there’s ever a permanent inspector general for Ryan Zinke’s Department of the Interior, she’ll definitely be busy—unless he rides his horse out of town.