Interior Department mired in investigations

By: Lyndsey Gilpin, High Country News, November 27, 2017

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has brushed off criticism over his expensive use of private and military planes for travel, telling conservative supporters that the whole issue is just “a little B.S.”

But several watchdog agencies, congressional Democrats and legal experts believe it’s more than that. After only eight months in office, Zinke’s taxpayer-funded travel, meetings with political donors and other actions have led to several official probes. “We’ve been tracking Zinke and what he’s been doing at the Department of Interior,” says Daniel Stevens, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign for Accountability. “It led us to look into whether he’s violated any rules or laws.”

In August, Interior’s Office of Inspector General — which investigates reports of government corruption — opened a preliminary investigation into phone calls Zinke made to Alaskan Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, in which he allegedly threatened to block energy projects in their state after Murkowski voted against the GOP health-care bill.

The OIG is also investigating Zinke’s decision to move 50 senior federal employees to new positions within the Interior Department, after a whistleblower said he was transferred because of his work on climate change. (See story page 7.) In October, the Campaign for Accountability asked the Office of Government Ethics to look into the millions of dollars Zinke has funneled into conservative “scam PACs” accused of misleading donors. Additionally, the Office of Special Counsel is examining Zinke’s appearances at political fundraisers during government trips, and the Interior OIG and Government Accountability Office are scrutinizing his $12,000 flight from Las Vegas to Montana in a plane owned by oil and gas executives, following an event with political donors.

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