Living next to Cabinet officials can be tough on Washingtonians. But the events that unfolded Monday night in front of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s home were weird by any standards.
The Mercedes SUV had been idling for two hours and was taking up three parking spots on the 100 block of Kentucky Avenue SE. So Lincoln Park resident Gina Arlotto asked the driver to turn off the engine and back up to free two parking spots, she said Tuesday. The driver didn’t move the car, but he killed the engine.
Neighbor Paul Legere was coming home from work when his wife called to warn him the car had been idling for hours on the block, a notoriously difficult place to find parking.
When Legere arrived, he too asked the driver to move to create a parking space. Again, the driver refused.
“We had some words,” Legere said. “I’ve had some parking issues in the past. This was not a government SUV. He wouldn’t identify himself. He said he was waiting for his boss.”
That’s when a man who appeared to be about 6 feet tall, white and about 30 years old emerged from Zinke’s front door.
“He said, ‘I’m Ryan Zinke.’ I said, ‘Dude, you’re not Zinke.’ I asked, ‘Who are you?’ " Legere recounted.
He said his name was Scott. "Scott what?”
According to Legere, the man wheeled around toward the house without an answer and muttered as he walked to the front door. Within minutes, by about 9:30 p.m., U.S. Park Police arrived. Neighbors assumed the man named “Scott” had called them, as Park Police fall under Zinke’s department.
But it turns out it was the secretary himself.
Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort said in an email that Zinke was inside his house at the time, watching football and barbecuing with friends. He alerted his protective security detail “about a suspicious individual staking out his home and guests.”
“While waiting for the [U.S. Park Police] to arrive, another individual began yelling profanities in the street about the President and the Secretary,” she added. "The Secretary remained inside his home the entire night while the [Park Police] responded.”
Asked whether the “suspicious individual” was a neighbor or the driver who had been idling outside, and for details about the individual who impersonated Zinke, Vander Voort referred a reporter to the Park Police.
Sgt. Eduardo Delgado, a Park Police spokesman, said that when police responded to Zinke’s call, they did not find a suspicious person. The idling car in front of the secretary’s house was gone, he said, and the neighbors took the opportunity to tell the police their version of the story.
Arlotto said that profanities were exchanged between Legere and the driver before the police arrived.
“There were a lot of f-bombs,” she said. But she didn’t hear any profanities aimed at either the president or the secretary.
Legere, who saw the police from his house, figured they would want to speak with him, so he walked over.
“They said this is all a big misunderstanding,” Legere recalled. “We were all in agreement that this wasn’t Zinke.”
Zinke and his wife have lived in the rental home since he began serving in Congress in 2015, Arlotto said, and have not been seen frequently in the neighborhood in recent months. The guest who impersonated Zinke, along with three or four other men, all left the house and piled into the Mercedes around 10 p.m.
“I just think it’s outrageous that he called the Park Police on a neighbor,” Arlotto said. “I felt that he wanted to harass us.”
Zinke has come under scrutiny in recent months for his travel practices and real estate dealings back home in Montana. A report released last month by the Interior Office of Inspector General said that Zinke had his wife accompany him in government vehicles, even though that was prohibited under the department’s motor vehicle policy. Zinke changed the policy in July to allow for members of his family to ride with him in department vehicles when it was for official events.
Monday night’s incident was all the talk of the Lincoln Park email group by Tuesday morning, as Arlotto voiced her frustration online.
“I’m still pretty annoyed at this person pretending to be Zinke to intimidate a neighbor, and then calling the Park Police for protection, but I guess that’s just me,” she posted at 5:07 a.m. “Nothing makes sense anymore.”