The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke remains defiant amid ethics probes

The pond inside the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park, owned by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his wife in Whitefish, Mont. (Louise Johns/For The Washington Post)

WHITEFISH, Mont. — As speculation swirled around Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s future in the Trump administration this month, he flew home and hopped onto the Harley-Davidson he keeps in his driveway at the edge of town.

The roar from his motorcycle — which he rode around town on Veterans Day weekend before leaving to tour wildfire damage in California — signaled Zinke’s defiance in the face of national scrutiny.

As federal investigators examine his real estate dealings here in his hometown, Zinke is dismissing rumors of his departure from the Cabinet and plunging into the public debate over forest management.

President Trump has said several times that he intends to “review” multiple ethics investigations against the secretary, including a land deal Zinke struck here with the chairman of the oil services giant Halliburton, before he decides whether to keep Zinke on as he shakes up his Cabinet.

But in recent days, Zinke has derided ethics probes into his activities as “fake news” and vowed to stay in his job to advance the president’s pro-industry agenda, saying the president backs him “100 percent.”

“The allegations against me are outrageous; they’re false,” he told “Breitbart News Sunday” on SiriusXM Patriot, a conservative talk radio channel. “Everyone knows they’re false.” He said the “resistance movement” of people angry about his policies is spreading rumors about him and threatening his wife and children.

White House sees Zinke as the Cabinet member most vulnerable to Hill probe

Zinke’s personal conduct and management decisions have led Interior’s inspector general and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to launch at least 15 investigations, nine of which have been closed. Acting inspector general Mary Kendall found last month that Zinke violated official policy by having his wife accompany him in government vehicles and raised concerns by trying to appoint her as an official agency volunteer. Investigators also closed two probes because of a lack of cooperation, including one regarding Zinke’s move to cancel a $1 million study into the health impacts of the strip-mining of coal.

The Office of Special Counsel, which investigates prohibited political activity by public officials, cleared Zinke in three different probes into allegations of combining political and official business.

Zinke’s comments to Breitbart came during an extended period away from his agency’s headquarters in Washington, during which he returned to this small mountain community in northwestern Montana and gave multiple interviews before flying to California to tour areas hit by wildfires.

Mayre Flowers, who for a quarter-century headed a land-use-planning nonprofit organization in Whitefish until she retired last year, said in an interview that residents have not found Zinke forthcoming when they have questioned him on his conduct and policy positions.

“You have an expectation that you can talk to one another, because we live in a small town,” Flowers said. “All of a sudden, when you have this defensiveness, you can’t really talk anymore.”

The secretary spent the Veterans Day weekend at his family home here and had drinks at a local bar. A month and a half ago, his critics mocked him in fliers distributed at local breweries during the city’s Oktoberfest celebration. “Ryan Zinke’s Double Tap Brewing Company, sponsored by Halliburton, opening soon in Whitefish, Montana,” the fliers said.

Z inke’s own watchdog referred his inquiry to the Justice Department

It is here that he faces the glare of a federal inquiry that shows no sign of wrapping up.

Investigators are examining Zinke’s involvement in a $90 million residential and commercial project, steps from his childhood home, that the city approved late last year on the site of a long-closed timber mill abutting the BNSF freight railroad tracks.

The scenic property — which lies beneath Whitefish Mountain Resort and near a forested lake ringed by wealthy homes — is prime for redevelopment. The venture, called 95 Karrow, is the largest project so far in a community of 7,600 residents in the midst of a real estate boom.

The project is backed by Halliburton Chairman David J. Lesar, who owns a home in a gated community by the lake and whose firm is one of the country’s largest providing oil field services on public lands. Zinke’s position as the Cabinet official managing 500 million acres of public land — and overseeing a rollback of environmental regulations to increase drilling — has raised the specter of a conflict of interest.

Lesar’s son, John, and his daughter-in-law, Katie, are also listed as investors in the project, according to Montana state records.

In October, investigators referred their inquiry to the Justice Department, a sign that they have found something they view as potential criminal action.

Zinke faces at least two other ethics investigations by the inspector general, including whether he redrew a national monument’s boundaries to benefit a Republican state representative in Utah. Another examines his decision blocking two Indian tribes in Connecticut from expanding their casino operations after he met with lobbyists for a competitor, the casino giant MGM Resorts.

The publicity over Zinke’s land deal has rattled Whitefish, an old railroad town quickly bouncing back from economic decline. It now boast satellite offices for the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, along with high-end restaurants, gift shops selling Montana ceramics and a jeweler where necklaces sell for $3,000 apiece.

White House concerned Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated federal rules

City officials are reluctant to discuss Zinke. The Lesar family and Casey Malmquist, 95 Karrow’s lead local developer, have hired powerhouse D.C. trial lawyer Brian Heberlig to represent them.

Heberlig’s client list includes the “highest ranking BP executive charged in connection with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” his LinkedIn profile says. “I defend clients facing allegations of public corruption, securities and accounting fraud, FCPA [Foreign Corrupt Practices Act] violations, antitrust conspiracies . . . obstruction of justice, false statements, environmental offenses, and other business crimes.”

Heberlig, of Steptoe & Johnson, declined to comment.

Locals worry that their little town’s reputation is being sullied by a Washington scandal. And one partner on the development team is distancing himself from Zinke in frustration.

The secretary and his wife, Lola, own more than a dozen acres of land next to the project, property that BNSF donated to them a decade ago. They established the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation to oversee what they predicted would be a community gathering spot. The park has been graded but remains relatively undeveloped.

Zinke served as the nonprofit foundation’s president until after he joined Trump’s Cabinet. His wife now heads it, and in that capacity gave the 95 Karrow project an easement for 34 parking spaces last fall as the developers applied for city approval.

The arrangement was driven by a requirement of the local fire marshal for an additional route of egress from the park and the development in an emergency, city planning records show.

To many in Whitefish, the controversy surrounding Zinke has been overblown.

“From the city’s perspective, the park and 95 Karrow went through a public process that was well vetted,” said Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld, a Democrat. “Ryan Zinke followed a due process we have in place.”

But what is arguably a simple, by-the-book parking easement remains the linchpin for the matters investigators are examining, according to people familiar with the probe who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was still ongoing.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swiftdeclined requests for information on Zinke’s whereabouts this week.

The project in Whitefish was approved for shops, apartments, a hotel and space for artists, as well as a microbrewery, which Zinke himself has long hoped to build on one of his own properties. Neighborhood opposition thwarted that plan, and early in the process, Zinke expressed interest in reviving his dream for 95 Karrow.

“Zinke said, ‘What if I did put my brewery over here?’ ” recalled Michael Anderson, a 95 Karrow investor and prominent Whitefish real estate agent. “We said, ‘Possibly.’ ”

But in recent months, Anderson added, “there hasn’t been a conversation with Ryan” about the brewery.

The Zinkes own two other properties across the street from 95 Karrow and one on the same side of the street. The modest neighborhood’s value is set to at least double once the project is built, according to David Oberlitner, a real estate agent with Christie’s PureWest. A recently completed city plan provides for greater residential density along with a rebuilt main street steps from the project, which should boost the value of property in the area.

Zinke has continued to be involved in discussions over 95 Karrow since he took office, according to public records released by both Interior and the town of Whitefish.

Bruce Boody, the landscape architect for 95 Karrow, said the team briefed the secretary on the project as it wound its way through city approvals last fall.

“He’s part of the development,” Boody said, adding that the Zinkes, through the park, “are preserving a nice thing for the community.”

But the investor Anderson distanced himself from Zinke.

“We have nothing to do with Ryan Zinke, and he has nothing to do with us,” he said. “We have a lot of land. We have extra parking already.”

Anderson said that the developers approached the secretary with the aim of securing for the park another point of access and that they plan to break ground in the spring.

“We were trying to be neighborly,” he said. “We don’t need the park property.”

Zinke, 57, grew up in Whitefish as the son of a plumber and returned to start his political career after retiring from the Navy. His current policy positions are largely out of sync with his hometown, one of the few liberal enclaves in an otherwise conservative state.

Hillary Clinton won here with 65 percent of the vote. Many residents who enjoy the outdoors and consider themselves conservationists have been disillusioned by Zinke’s closeness with the oil and gas industry. As his political career soared, he allied himself with companies such as Halliburton, which gave more to his campaign than to any other House or Senate candidate in the 2014 cycle.

Making a symbolic stand against the administration, Whitefish was an early backer of the Paris climate agreement that Trump announced in June 2017 the United States would leave. The city is home to the advocacy group the Western Values Project, which has assailed Zinke from the moment he took office.

“The publicity is so bad for us,” said Rhonda Fitzgerald, a local neighborhood activist and owner of the Garden Wall Inn. “It misrepresents the community as a place of shady land deals and rich power brokers. It’s really a community of people who work and enjoy the pristine natural environment.”

Zinke has told friends that he is determined to stay in office and is convinced that the inspector general will not find any wrongdoing on his part. On Tuesday, Zinke tweeted that he had spent part of the day touring Montana’s Badger-Two Medicine area by horseback: “Rugged, remote, and beautiful. This is where the Blackfeet Nation’s creation story begins.”

The president, meanwhile, headed to Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach, Fla., for the Thanksgiving holiday. He had not made a decision on his interior secretary’s future in the Cabinet or received the briefing on multiple investigations his staff had planned to give him more than a week ago.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.