Democrats Vow Probe of Bid to Oust Investigator Targeting Zinke

(Bloomberg) -- House Democrats are vowing to probe the Trump administration’s botched bid to replace a government investigator who had asked the Justice Department to look into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s role in a Montana land deal.

The since-abandoned move to install a new acting inspector general of the Interior Department was described in an Oct. 12 email from Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. About a week earlier, the acting inspector general targeted for replacement had referred a Zinke investigation to the Justice Department for a possible criminal probe, said two people familiar with the action who asked not to be named discussing a government inquiry.

The timing “can’t be dismissed as merely a coincidence,” said Representative Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat expected to lead the House Natural Resources Committee next year. “That’s why the oversight is so necessary.”

Grijalva vowed to use his committee’s oversight power “to get the facts” after Democrats take over the House in January.

Zinke remains at the helm of the Interior Department, where he has pursued President Donald Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda by auctioning off oil leases and ending a moratorium on new federal coal sales. But Zinke’s tenure has come under increasing scrutiny amid investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest.

Trump Praise

Trump offered tepid praise for Zinke Wednesday: “I think he is doing an excellent job.”

But Trump also said he was “looking at” allegations surrounding Zinke and promised to “have an idea” about the Interior secretary’s job status “in about a week.”

Interior Department representatives didn’t respond to requests seeking comment.

The replacement effort targeted Mary Kendall, who has been the acting inspector general of the Interior Department since 2009. Her office has opened several probes targeting Zinke, including one examining his move to block Indian tribes’ ambitions to build a casino amid lobbying from their chief competitor, MGM Resorts International.

Another inquiry focuses on a land deal in Montana between a charitable foundation Zinke created and a property development group backed by David J. Lesar, the chairman of oilfield services provider Halliburton Co. 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 have suggested Zinke violated conflict of interest laws by meeting last year with Lesar, Lesar’s son and a Montana developer.

‘A Fond Farewell’

Both probes were escalating Oct. 12 when Carson emailed Department of Housing and Urban Development employees bidding “a fond farewell” to assistant secretary for administration Suzanne Israel Tufts. Carson said Tufts was leaving to become Interior’s acting inspector general.

Within days, the Trump administration backtracked. The Interior Department denied there had been any decision to move Tufts. “HUD sent out an email that had false information in it,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said on Oct. 18. “At the end of the day, she was not offered a job at Interior.”

It is unclear when officials began considering Tufts for the inspector general role, nor when they began making moves to replace Kendall.

“The timing here stinks to high heaven,” said Aaron Weiss, media director for the Denver-based advocacy group Center for Western Priorities. “It’s beyond suspect that someone tried to replace Interior’s top watchdog within a week of her sending an investigation to prosecutors. Investigators must now also look into what Secretary Zinke knew about the DOJ referral, and who was behind the botched attempt to replace Mary Kendall.”

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