Zinke Feuds With Lawmaker Who Will Oversee Interior Department

(Bloomberg) -- A feud between the head of the Interior Department and a congressional Democrat set to lead the committee overseeing the agency turned ugly on Friday, with the two trading public accusations of ethical lapses and drunken behavior.

Representative Raul Grijalva, who is poised to lead the House Natural Resources Committee, fired the first salvo with an opinion piece in USA Today calling on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to resign over a series of “ethical and managerial failings.”

Hours later, Zinke shot back on Twitter, with a post impugning Grijalva, alleging “drunken and hostile behavior” and making a veiled reference to a Capitol Hill bar.

“It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle,” Zinke posted on Twitter. “This is coming from a man who used nearly $50,000 in tax dollars as hush money to cover up his drunken and hostile behavior. He should resign and pay back the taxpayer for the hush money and the tens of thousands of dollars he forced my department to spend investigating unfounded allegations.”

Grijalva has vowed that his committee will investigate Zinke’s handling of the Interior Department. In the USA Today piece, Grijlava highlighted mounting government investigations against Zinke, including probes of his travel, business dealings and political activity.

“We would hardly look the other way at the mayor of a small town, let alone a cabinet secretary, who faced unending ethical questions, formal investigations and substantiated claims of attempted nepotism,” Grijalva wrote.

Grijalva didn’t back down after Zinke’s tweet. “The American people know who I’m here to serve, and they know in whose interests I’m acting,” Grijalva said in an emailed statement. “They don’t know the same about Secretary Zinke.”

Grijalva also shot back on Twitter: “The allegations against Secretary Zinke are credible and serious. Instead of addressing the substantive issues raised in this morning’s op-ed, he’s resorting to personal attacks.”

Representatives for Zinke didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

According to a 2017 Arizona Daily Star article citing reporting by the Washington Times, Grijalva said he worked with the House Employment Counsel to reach a “severance package” with an employee that included “an agreement that neither of us would talk about it publicly” and had terms that “were consistent with House Ethics Committee guidance.” Grijalva said the funds came out of his “committee operating budget.”

In an interview with a Tucson TV station early this year, Grijalva said the female employee worked in his office only 28 days and that there were policy differences. Although Grijalva said he believed he would have prevailed in court, he stressed that the settlement, amounting to $48,000 in taxpayer dollars was “the best use of money.”

“Going to court would have been three or four times that cost,” Grijalva told the station. “I wouldn’t have done this on my own; I wouldn’t have done it without legal advice.”

According to the Daily Star, Grijalva was convicted of driving under the influence in 1985, while he was a member of the Tucson Unified School District board. “Whatever personal frailty I have drinking, it’s something I have to deal with and come to grips with,” he reportedly said at the time.

The Interior Department’s inspector general has launched at least seven probes into Zinke’s actions as secretary. The most serious involves a land deal in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, between a charitable foundation he 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 a meeting Zinke held last year with Lesar, Lesar’s son and a Montana developer may have violated federal conflict of interest laws given the company’s broad interests before the Interior Department. The inspector general has referred the probe to the Justice Department for further investigation, opening the possibility of a criminal prosecution.

While Zinke and Grijalva sparred Friday, other lawmakers and advocates jumped into the fray. Representative Nydia Velazquez, the top Democrat on the House Small Business Committee, also asked for Zinke’s resignation, saying on Twitter that the Interior secretary “has brought a culture of corruption and corporate favoritism to an agency tasked with caring for our public lands and resources. The American people deserve better.”

Jennifer Rokala, head of the Center for Western Priorities advocacy group, cast Zinke’s Twitter response as bizarre.

“Even by Secretary Zinke’s standards, this is a new low,” Rokala said by email. “It’s unbecoming of a cabinet secretary. It’s also foolish to pick a fight with a member of Congress who will soon have oversight and subpoena power over your agency.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.