WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke continued to engage in discussions involving his family foundation's property in summer 2017 despite the fact that he had pledged to recuse himself from such matters for a year, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post.
At issue is an August 2017 e-mail exchange with David Taylor, the city planner for Whitefish, Mont. Zinke authorized him to access the property and explained that he was engaged in negotiations with a real estate developer over building a parking lot on his foundation's land. But under an ethics pledge he signed Jan. 10, 2017, Zinke vowed to step down from his position as president of the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation after winning confirmation and refrain from participating in any matters concerning the group for one year.
Zinke won confirmation on March 1, 2017, but state records and the foundation's 2018 annual report listed him as continuing to serve as a foundation officer months after that. Zinke later said the foundation's report was in error.
In his ethics pledge, he said: "I will not participate personally and substantially in any particular matter involving specific parties in which I know this entity is a party or represents a party, unless I am first authorized to participate."
The Interior Department did not immediately comment.
Zinke's involvement in a land development deal involving the park, backed by David Lesar, chairman of the oil services firm Halliburton, is under scrutiny from the Justice Department and the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General. The business and retail project, known as 95 Karrow, involves the construction of a parking lot on the foundation's land and would lie near land owned by Zinke and his wife, Lola.
Don Fox, a former acting director and general counsel at the Office of Government Ethics, said in a phone interview that the fact that Zinke continued to conduct foundation business after agreeing to stop raised questions about his overall conduct.
"In the whole panoply of ethics violations, is this a major one? No," Fox said, adding that most Cabinet members adhere strictly to the terms of their ethics pledges. "The thing, I think, is the totally callous disregard for the standards and norms that previous administration officials have complied with. Because it's such a very easy thing to comply with."
In Washington, President Donald Trump praised Zinke's record but told reporters he was scrutinizing his conduct. "He's done a good job," Trump said, adding that he will "take a look" at reports that Zinke may have used his office for personal gain.
The discussion between Zinke and Taylor focused on two local planning questions: whether Taylor and others could set up a disc golf park on the site and whether part of it would be converted into a parking lot. In an Aug. 10, 2017, e-mail, Taylor asked whether he and his friends could set up a course to ensure the park — which includes a sledding hill — "gets used more in the non-winter months."
The park, which is primarily on land that BNSF Railway donated to the Zinkes' foundation over the past decade, is open to the public but largely undeveloped. The state highway used it as a staging site for a couple of years, Taylor said in a phone interview, and it includes a small pond that is also used for skating. It is gated and inaccessible by car.
In an Aug. 13 reply to Taylor, Zinke said that it would be fine to erect a disc golf course for his and his friends' use.
In another exchange with Taylor, on June 21 this year, Zinke criticized the initial Politico report that raised questions about his involvement in the 95 Karrow development. "Only fake news would make a mountain out of a sledding hill for kids," the secretary wrote. "As usual, the park is just trying to help whitefish [sic] on what appears to be a good project."
But Chris Saeger, who directs the Whitefish-based advocacy group Western Values Project, said the correspondence shows that Zinke was misusing his nonprofit.
"Ryan Zinke broke his promise to the citizens of Whitefish to build this park for the public," Saeger said.