Week 93: One of Ryan Zinke’s Ethics Scandals Heads to the Justice Department

The Interior secretary’s shady land deal, and his shady trophy hunting council, are under scrutiny.

November 02, 2018

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Zinke Could Use a Brewski Right Now

Over the summer, Politico reported on a bizarre web of conflicts of interest involving Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and David Lesar, chairman of the oil services company Halliburton. You can get the full explanation from our Week 74 post, but here’s the short(ish) version: Lesar has donated to Zinke’s political campaigns, and his company is sometimes regulated by Interior, so he shouldn’t be involved in business dealings with Zinke. And yet, Lesar has proposed to build a shopping center in Whitefish, Montana, Zinke’s hometown, and a foundation linked to Zinke has allegedly agreed to provide land for the development’s parking lot. Zinke also has financial interests in some property adjacent to the building site. To top it all off, Lesar reportedly set aside one of the planned retail spaces for a Zinke family–owned microbrewery. It’s an unethical mess.

This week, the Washington Post broke the news that the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General has referred an ethics probe involving Zinke to the Department of Justice. The initial report was agnostic as to which probe it was—there are at least three probes into Zinke’s ethics (or lack thereof)—but a source told the New York Times it’s “highly likely” to be the Lesar-Whitefish-microbrewery inquiry. In other words, the Inspector General has reason to believe that the Montana real estate deal is so icky that it should be investigated by the people who put bad guys in jail. So it appears Zinke is in big trouble.

Could there be a possible cover-up angle to this story as well? Why, yes. Just two weeks ago, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson announced that HUD staffer Suzanne Israel Tufts was moving to the Interior Department to become its new Inspector General, effectively replacing Mary Kendall, who is currently overseeing the investigations into Zinke’s alleged misdeeds. After a public uproar, the administration denied that the move was ever in the cards (probably leaving Zinke sobbing into his beer), and Tufts resigned from HUD without explanation. While we don’t know for certain that the near-appointment of a new inspector general was intended to ease the pressure on Zinke, the timing is suspicious indeed.

October has been quite a roller coaster for Secretary Zinke. Just three weeks ago, Fox News reported he was under consideration to replace Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations. Now he appears to be under consideration for prosecution by the Justice Department, and whispers are growing that he will be gone from the administration by year’s end.

Hunting for Friendly Policies

Ethical concerns are also circling around the “International Wildlife Conservation Council” that Secretary Zinke established in March. The name is a misnomer, because the council’s stated purpose is to advise Zinke “regarding the benefits that result from United States citizens traveling to foreign nations to engage in hunting.”

Some people argue that trophy hunting can have positive effects for conservation, but you don’t need to take a side in that debate to recognize that if the primary purpose of this council is to promote hunting, it should be called the “International Hunting Council.” The composition of the council certainly suggests that conservation was, at best, an afterthought. All 16 of the appointees support hunting, and some have a financial stake in it. One even co-owns a private hunting ground with the president’s sons.

This week we learned that at least one of the appointees serving on the hunting council is simultaneously asking for permission to import the wildlife he has killed abroad. Steven Chancellor—who, by the way, is CEO of a fossil fuels company called White Stallion Energy and just so happens to have raised $1 million for the Trump campaign—obtained permits from the Interior Department in June to import the heads and skins of three male lions.

The grant of the permits is particularly problematic from an ethics perspective, because Chancellor killed the lions in 2016 and 2017 in Zimbabwe, a country from which the Obama administration had banned importation of lion parts. The timeline strongly suggests that Chancellor personally benefited from decisions within the scope of his advising responsibilities.

In total, Chancellor has killed at least 18 lions, 13 leopards, six elephants, and two rhinos. It’s nice to know that when he’s not shilling fossil fuels, he’s laser-focused on “conservation.”

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onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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