“It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle,” Zinke wrote from his official Twitter account, @SecretaryZinke, at 12:02 p.m. He prefaced it, “My thoughts on Rep. Grijalva’s opinion piece.”
“This is coming from a man who used nearly $50,000 in tax dollars as hush money to cover up his drunken and hostile behavior,” Zinke wrote. “He should resign and pay back the taxpayer for the hush money and the tens of thousands of dollars he forced my department to spend investigating unfounded allegations.”
The tweet is signed in bold, “Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke,” and contained the hashtag #TuneInnForMore, a play on words apparently referencing a Capitol Hill bar Grijalva frequents.
Zinke and Grijalva have sparred on policy matters as well as issues related to the secretary’s conduct, with tension escalating as it became clear that House Democrats would soon be in a position to conduct greater scrutiny of the Trump administration.
The eight-term congressman has questioned the secretary’s move to shrink two massive national monuments in Utah, expand offshore drilling of America’s coasts, and roll back Obama-era rules aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands.
Grijalva has also blasted Zinke over allegations of ethical misconduct, including over his land deal in Whitefish, Mont., with the chairman of Halliburton, the oil services giant. That matter is under investigation and has been referred to the Justice Department, meaning that it involves potential criminal activity.
The inspector general is also looking into Zinke’s decision to deny a permit to two tribes in Connecticut who were seeking to establish a casino after MGM Resorts International lobbied against it.
The inspector general and the Office of Special Counsel have launched at least 15 investigations into Zinke’s conduct, 10 of which have been closed. The inspector general has cleared Zinke of wrongdoing in several cases, including a recent finding that he did not improperly alter the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to benefit a political ally in Utah. But that same office concluded in October that Zinke violated department policy by having his wife accompany him in government vehicles, and by instructing his security detail to take an associate to the airport when he was not in the car.
In his op-ed, Grijalva wrote: “While the secretary continues to project confidence, questions have grown since the election about his plans, and the White House reportedly fears that he would be unable to withstand scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Those fears are justified. Mr. Zinke has never even tried to offer an explanation for the sheer scope of his well-documented scandals.”
Grijalva added: “The department needs someone accountable at the helm who believes in this mission. Mr. Zinke is not that person. Federal agencies cannot function without credible leadership, and he offers none. He needs to resign.”
President Trump, for his part, has said that he intends to “review” multiple ethics investigations against the secretary before deciding whether to keep Zinke on in his Cabinet. But the president has not publicly discussed his plans, and Zinke returned this week from more than 2½ weeks out west to attend Wednesday’s Christmas tree lighting ceremony at the White House.
Zinke has shown no signs of wanting to leave his post. In an interview Thursday with “Fox News @ Night,” he argued that he had been targeted by “Democratic operatives” and would emerge unscathed.
“I’ve had 10 investigations completed. And you know what they say?” he asked in response to a question posed by host Shannon Bream. “Ryan Zinke follows all the rules, all the regulations, all the procedures. This is politically motivated. In Montana, we call it BS.”
When the Christmas holiday came up, Zinke joked that he would be investigated yet again if he shared Christian greetings.
“Merry Christmas,” he said. “If I should be investigated by saying it, you know what? ‘Merry Christmas, America.’ ”
While Interior’s press office did not elaborate on Zinke’s tweet Friday, his reference to the congressman’s “drunken and hostile behavior” may have been based on a story that appeared Nov. 27, 2017, in the Washington Times: “How a House Dem accused of drunken shenanigans revealed another secret ‘hush fund.’ ”
The paper reported that Grijalva arranged a $48,395 severance payout for a female staffer who threatened to sue him for being “frequently drunk” and creating a “hostile workplace environment,” according to the article. The employee quit after three months and did not pursue legal action, the article said.
The congressman told the Times that the agreement allowed the employee’s pay to resume at her full salary for five months after she left his office.
Grijalva acknowledged to the Times that the money was a severance package and that the agreement was reached without a complaint lodged with the Office of Compliance, which handles workplace grievances by congressional employees. He said in a statement that “at no time was any allegation of sexual harassment made, and no sexual harassment occurred.”
Grijalva did acknowledge during an interview with News 4 Tucson earlier this year that he had struggled with drinking in the past but said it no longer posed a problem. “I dealt with it, and I feel comfortable that I got past that,” he said.
Asked about Zinke’s tweet Friday, Grijalva issued a statement saying, “The American people know who I’m here to serve, and they know in whose interests I’m acting. They don’t know the same about Secretary Zinke.”
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Grijalva said that he expects that Zinke will come to testify about the secretary’s discussions around a land deal between the Zinkes’ family foundation and a group of developers that includes Halliburton chairman David Lesar. Grijalva and other Democrats asked Interior’s acting inspector general to launch a probe of the matter in late June, after Politico first reported on the deal.
Separately, the congressman said he wants more answers about an incident in October in which Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced that one of his top appointees would become Interior’s acting inspector general. Days later, Interior officials called Carson’s statement “100 percent false” and said they would not hire HUD official Suzanne Israel Tufts.
“The coincidence of the timing, I would question,” Grijalva said, noting that Carson’s statement came shortly after acting Interior inspector general Mary Kendall referred allegations concerning Zinke to the Justice Department.
“This is not a scattered-gun approach; these are things that have been on the table for a year, a year and a half,” Grijalva said.