Activists Who Helped Oust Pruitt Now Target Trump’s Interior Secretary

(Bloomberg) -- Environmentalists who trained their fire on President Donald Trump’s first EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, now are closing in on a new target: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

They are employing almost the same zeal in attacking Zinke, who initially attracted tentative support from conservationists. But he now is drawing criticism for questionable travel decisions, a land deal involving the head of oilfield services company Halliburton Co., and thwarting Indian tribes’ ambitions to build a casino in Connecticut after lobbying from their chief competitor, MGM Resorts International.

Activists Who Helped Oust Pruitt Now Target Trump’s Interior Secretary

“After Scott Pruitt, Zinke is the lowest-hanging fruit,” said Aaron Weiss, media director with the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based watchdog group. “He is the most obvious source of corruption remaining in the cabinet.”

Environmentalists and conservationists scour the interior secretary’s tweets, public remarks and policy moves for any misstep. Critics have publicized videos of Zinke chiding activists and a report that he likened Confederate General Robert E. Lee to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Protesters have interrupted Zinke’s recent speeches to a wind power trade group conference and a clean energy symposium with demands that he resign.

They’re also circulating petitions calling for his removal. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth have erected entire websites dedicated to the effort, one exclaiming "Stop Ryan Zinke" and the other urging visitors to "fire" him. And across Washington, D.C., light poles and utility boxes have been plastered with posters portraying Zinke as a vampire -- “Count Corruption.”

Similar scrutiny helped draw attention to a cascade of ethical allegations involving Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator who ultimately resigned under White House pressure in July.

Zinke is the subject of several probes by the Interior Department’s inspector general, whose office has referred at least one of those inquiries to the Justice Department for further investigation, the Washington Post reported Tuesday. That opens the door to a criminal investigation.

Zinke’s lawyer, Steve Ryan, disputed the report, saying the secretary “has done nothing wrong” and “has not been contacted or notified of any DOJ investigation or inspector general referral.”

Representatives of the Interior Department did not respond to emails requesting comment.

It didn’t start out this way. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and a Republican congressman from Montana, initially won support from outdoor recreation enthusiasts, public lands groups and conservationists who were encouraged by his previous record defending land overseen by the U.S. government and resisting efforts by conservative groups to return that territory to states.

Zinke portrayed himself as a “Teddy Roosevelt Republican” committed to preserving public lands for generations to come.

But it didn’t take long for the “cautious optimism” to fade, according to Kate Kelly, public lands director with the Center for American Progress.

“There really has been a steady drip of scandals and bad judgment and harmful policies coming out of Zinke’s department, and it’s now catching up to him,” Kelly said. “What captures headlines are these scandals, but what Zinke is doing on the policy side to undermine protections for land and water and wildlife are extremely concerning.”

Zinke moved quickly to re-examine the boundaries of national monuments set aside by recent presidents, ultimately clearing the way for Trump’s decision to shrink the boundaries of the Bears Ears site in Utah. Under Zinke, the Interior Department also has auctioned off more land for oil development, ended a moratorium on leasing federally owned coal and repealed mandates governing drilling.

Industry Cheers

Zinke’s decisions and focus on Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda have won cheers from oil, gas and mining advocates, who say they represent an overdue government effort to balance recreation and conservation with prudent development on public lands.

“What they’re trying to do is restore some balance that was lacking under the previous administration,” said Nicolas Loris, a fellow in energy and environmental policy at the Heritage Foundation. As energy dominance has become a bigger part of the Interior Department’s strategy, Zinke has “made it a point to try to listen to the local constituents as to what they want,” he said.

Activists say the campaign against Pruitt drew more financial resources and a wider array of stakeholders, given the EPA’s broad, national reach and Pruitt’s attacks on the agency when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general.

Although the Interior Department oversees drilling, recreation and other activities on nearly a fifth of the U.S., its footprint is biggest in the West. After Pruitt’s ouster, the targeting Zinke intensified, according to the activists, who asked not to be named discussing their strategy.

Inspector General

The Center for Western Priorities says the inspector general started at least eight investigations and the Office of Special Counsel opened another six lines of inquiry focusing on Zinke. But the inspector general also last year closed a probe over allegations of political threats against Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, determining after a preliminary review that further investigation “would prove unproductive.”

And the inspector general ultimately concluded in another case that scant recordkeeping prevented the office from ascertaining whether the reassignment of dozens of senior Interior Department employees violated federal law.

The most serious open inquiry involves a land deal in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, between a charitable foundation he created and a property development group backed by Halliburton Co. Chairman David J. Lesar.

Congressional Democrats asked the inspector general to look into whether Zinke used his office for personal gain, citing emails showing the interior secretary met with Lesar, Lesar’s son and a Montana developer in his office last year -- a meeting that was left off his official public calendar.

The foundation, run by Zinke’s wife, Lolita, is allowing Lesar and his family to use a portion of its land as a parking lot for a planned development. Democrats question whether the secretary’s meeting with Lesar ran afoul of federal conflict of interest laws given Halliburton’s broad interests before the Interior Department.

Zinke has said he stopped being involved in foundation matters after becoming secretary, and Halliburton has said Lesar’s personal involvement in a small real estate development has nothing to do with the company.

Congressional Democrats have already vowed to deeply scrutinize Zinke if they win control of the House of Representatives in next week’s elections. Energy lobbyists, environmental activists and congressional staff speculate a Democratic takeover of the House would prompt him to resign.

In the meantime, Zinke’s critics are painting him as a Pruitt protege. “Ryan Zinke has done his best to emulate Scott Pruitt,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said this week. “Now it’s time he finishes the impersonation and resigns.”

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