At least once a week, a member of the Trump administration demonstrates in an entertaining way that public service can be a great way to make a buck. This week’s installment is a double feature, starring Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
First up: Politico reported on business dealings involving Zinke, his wife, their foundation and a Montana business development pushed by a group founded by David Lesar, chairman of energy group Halliburton.
Yes, Halliburton, one of the world’s biggest oil field services firms and a company that, needless to say, does quite a bit of business with the U.S. government, including the Interior Department, on matters related to such matters as fracking and oil field worker safety. That would seem to indicate that maybe Zinke going into business with Lesar isn’t the best idea? But this is the Trump administration, where conflicts of interest are to be imitated, not eliminated.
Lesar’s company wants to develop a former industrial site in Zinke’s home town of Whitefish, Mont., into a retail and entertainment space, with shops, a hotel and a brewery. Zinke’s family foundation, now run by his wife, Lola, has “pledged in writing” to permit the company to put in a parking lot on land donated to the foundation. Never mind the fact that land was donated in 2008 to create a park that would honor veterans. (Zinke says he resigned his position with his family foundation early last year, but he continued to be listed as an officer in filings with the state of Montana government until journalists began asking questions this week.) As Politico reports, the Zinke family owns land that’s contiguous to the proposed development — land that would likely increase in value because of all the new business. “Deceitful,” proclaimed the Vet Voice Foundation.
And on Thursday, Politico reported that Zinke met with Lesar and others involved with the development at Interior Department offices last August and went out to dinner with them later that evening. A participant in the meeting claimed the men talked about the “history of the DOI” at the government offices and then the development at dinner.
One other thing: Zinke has been trying to start a brewery for several years. An attempt to set it up on a family-owned property foundered when the neighbors complained. But there is always a second chance. A Whitefish city official told Politico he’d been informed by the Lesar’s company that the Zinke family would own the brewery in the proposed development, though a firm representative helpfully said nothing is final, and Zinke wouldn’t respond to questions about it one way or the other.
Zinke’s financial kegger would be a grade-A scandal under almost any president. But in the Trump administration, it may not even be the largest ethics scandal of the week. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross — who claimed he would offload any business interest that could be perceived as a conflict — instead dinged by Forbes for holding on through most of last year to “stakes in companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, a Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation and a huge player in an industry Ross is now investigating.” Up against a deadline, he sold some to Goldman Sachs and moved the rest to trust benefiting his family members — and we all know how disinterested we are when the finances of relatives are at stake.
It gets better. At the time Ross became aware that the Panama Papers investigation was homing in a company he invested in called Navigator Holdings (thanks to questions the New York Times helpfully sent him while reporting the story), Ross shorted shares in the firm, pocketing somewhere between $100,000 and $250,000 as a result.
Perhaps Ross needed the money: He may publicly claim a billion-dollar fortune, but when he filed financial disclosures, it turned out he was worth a mere nine figures. The horror!
There is just one problem: You’re not supposed to trade stocks based on non-public information. Ross says that’s not what’s going on; he says the whole thing is just a coincidence. The Times, he claims, said it was investigating his personal holdings, not Navigator. (Untrue, says the Times.) Instead, Ross claims he was in the process of selling off the remaining shares he owned in the firm when reporters just happened to come calling. Because the remaining holdings were hard for him to access, he shorted the company instead.
Except, as the Times delicately put in Tuesday, “it is not clear how a short sale would have accomplished Mr. Ross’s objective of divestment.”
But why bother to come up with a good story when Donald Trump is the boss? President Trump’s Washington hotel has turned into a place to see and to be seen by many of those hoping to do business with the administration. Prices are up at Mar-a-Lago as politically conservative causes hold annual benefits on its grounds. His sudden concern for the employees of Chinese telecom company ZTE came days after the Chinese government invested in an Indonesian development containing Trump-branded hotels, homes and a golf course.
When it comes to corruption and conflict of interest, Trump is the greatest. He sets the standard. The rest of the Cabinet just follows his lead.