Happy Trails, Ryan Zinke

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke will be the fourth Trump cabinet official to resign office while under investigation for potential criminal wrongdoing. Earlier this year, the Interior Department’s inspector general referred an internal investigation of Zinke to the Justice Department. The specifics of that investigation haven’t leaked yet, but there are at least three ongoing investigations into Zinke:

  1. His alleged use of department funds (i.e. taxpayer money) to have his wife accompany him on official business trips.
  2. His rejection of an application by two Native American tribes to open a new casino in Connecticut after “intense” lobbying from Nevada Republican lawmakers and MGM, which operates a casino twelve miles away, in Massachusetts.
  3. And a private real estate transaction in Montana involving the Halliburton Chairman David Lesar.

The last one has attracted the most scrutiny, as it should. Before Zinke was appointed to lead Interior, which regulates Halliburton (the country’s largest oil-services company), he was working with Lesar on a commercial real estate development in the affluent resort town of Whitefish, Montana. After assuming his current role, Zinke resigned his leadership position at the foundation, but his wife took over that exact job. Judging by investigation numero uno, she seems to be closely involved in her husband’s career. Earlier this year, Politico broke the inevitable story: Zinke was still personally involved in talks with Lesar.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this had the makings of a second Teapot Dome Scandal but it appears to be a lot more petty. At issue is a 14-acre plot of land owned by the Zinke’s foundation, which is slated to become a public park dedicated to veterans. Directly adjacent to the park is a similarly sized plot of land owned by a development group that is funded by Lesar, which wants to build a hotel, retail space, and microbrewery.

It so happens that Zinke himself has for years been hoping to open his own brewery on another piece of land near the development plot. The Whitefish city planner, David Taylor, told Politico that the commercial developer “suggested” that the microbrewery be set aside for the Zinke’s to own and operate. Additionally, Mrs. Zinke, as leader of the family foundation, signed a letter of intent to give a piece of the parkland to the development group so they can build a parking lot.

All of this is to say that Zinke was felled, like Scott Pruitt and Tom Price before him, by chickenshit. His ethics– the lack thereof–obviously matter, but we’ve had plenty of unethical presidential administrations before. What separates this administration from previous corrupt ones is its members’ smirking indifference as it uses secret service agents as personal valets, chartering private flights using taxpayer money, and, apparently, trades a parking lot for a microbrewery with the chairman of a company you’re charged with regulating.

Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.