Watchdog to Investigate Zinke’s Land Deal With Halliburton Chair

(Bloomberg) -- The Interior Department’s inspector general will review Secretary Ryan Zinke’s involvement in a land deal with a property development group backed by Halliburton Co. Chairman David J. Lesar, the IG said in a letter released by House Democrats.

The watchdog office agreed to look into the matter after the Democratic lawmakers asked them to investigate whether Zinke used his office for personal financial gain, and released internal emails that showed Zinke met with Lesar, Lesar’s son John, and Montana developer Casey Malmquist in his office in August.

Zinke’s official calendar for that day, which is routinely released to the public, withholds the meeting’s attendees and the subject matter, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee said.

The project in Zinke’s home town of Whitefish, Montana, involves a property located in between land owned by Zinke and land owned by a foundation he started, according to a letter Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the committee’s top Democrat, sent requesting a probe. The land was donated to the foundation several years ago to create a Veterans Peace Park.

“Secretary Zinke doesn’t seem to take his responsibility to the public seriously,” Grijalva said in a statement. “This formal investigation is one of many he’s managed to pile up in his short and undistinguished tenure, and I join my Democratic colleagues in seeking the transparency and accountability that Republicans have so far not provided.”

Whitefish River

Zinke “adheres to all applicable laws, rules and regulations. He resigned from his position with the park upon his confirmation as was required,” the Interior Department said in a statement. “He goes above and beyond mere technical compliance and strives for full transparency. We are confident the IG report will confirm that.”​

The foundation’s 2018 annual report to the state of Montana listed Zinke as an officer, with wife Lola as president and their daughter Jennifer as treasurer, Politico reported earlier this month.

The foundation is allowing Lesar and his family to use a portion of its land as a parking lot for the development, which envisions the construction of a hotel, microbrewery, restaurant and other businesses on the site of a former timber mill along the Whitefish River.

Property Boost

If the project goes ahead, it would substantially increase the value of the land owned by Zinke, Democrats said in their request for an investigation.

“Mr. Lesar’s personal investment in a small land development in Montana has nothing to do with Halliburton,” Emily Mir, Halliburton’s director of external affairs, said in an email.

Halliburton, one of the largest oilfield services companies in the world, routinely has business before the Interior Department, which has moved to lessen the regulation of fracking and increase oil and gas development on federal land -- moves that would benefit the Houston-based company.

“The email and meeting with Malmquist and the Lesars raises troubling questions about whether Secretary Zinke has used federal resources and his position as Secretary of the Interior for personal financial gain, and whether he or other DOI staff is actively trying to cover it up,” Grijalva and two other Democrats wrote in their letter to Interior Department deputy inspector general Mary Kendall.

Zinke faces 13 investigations or requests for investigations ranging from his use of private travel to threatening Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski over her vote on health care legislation, according to the Center for Western Priorities, an environmental group.

Earlier this week, Zinke raised eyebrows when he tweeted a photo of himself wearing socks with President Donald Trump’s face and the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” a potential violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity while on duty. Zinke later apologized and deleted the tweet.

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