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How Zinke’s Interior Department Has Impeded Oversight

Zinke investigation money
(Photo: Flickr / Gage Skidmore; Illustration by POGO)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides have engaged in a pattern of disregarding, and perhaps even attempting to evade, oversight and accountability, according to government documents released in the last few months related to three investigations of alleged misconduct involving him and top Interior Department political appointees.

The Interior Department’s top watchdog released a report last month about allegations that Zinke wasted taxpayer money on travel using charted flights and military aircraft last year.

The report by the Inspector General’s office found that Zinke’s aides gave Interior Department ethics officials incomplete information about a taxpayer-funded trip involving a $12,375 flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana, on the edge of Glacier National Park. Zinke was accompanied by four staffers.

Zinke’s trip was “ten thousand percent compliant” with ethics rules, a Zinke appointee told the watchdog office, which found that it wasn’t.

The reason Zinke and a handful of his staff took a pricey flight was so Zinke could give a speech to a hockey camp run by the Golden Knights, a hockey team based in Las Vegas. The owner of the team, Bill Foley, and the company he chairs, Fidelity, donated nearly $160,000 in campaign funds to Zinke between 2013 and 2016. Zinke’s speech never mentioned the Interior Department, or that he was Interior Secretary, according to the Inspector General report. Instead, Zinke’s “speech itself concentrated on his experience as a Navy SEAL.”

But ethics officials did not have all of that information before approving it.

“If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight,” according to the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General. “Moreover, had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion.”

“DOI staff who helped schedule Zinke’s travel did not provide enough information for the ethics officials to render an educated opinion,” the Inspector General report added.

Instead, the ethics official, Melinda Loftin, learned about the campaign donations from a newspaper article after the fact.

And after watching a video of the speech, she told investigators that Zinke’s speech “certainly should have been tied to the Department of the Interior and in some way reflective of our mission” for the trip’s costs to be borne by taxpayers.

She said the speech had “no tie” to Interior.

In contrast to Loftin, a career attorney at Interior who is Zinke’s top political appointee providing legal advice—Daniel Jorjani, a former high-level advisor to Charles Koch—said Zinke’s trip was “ten thousand percent compliant” with ethics rules.

An unnamed Zinke aide who worked with the ethics office on approving the trip said they “did not recall Loftin saying that Zinke’s speech should mention or focus on the DOI,” according to the report.

But another unnamed Interior “employee who attended this meeting and took part in the discussion recalled Loftin asking if Zinke would be talking about DOI assets and the scheduling staff telling her that Zinke wanted to give a speech about leadership, including his service as Interior Secretary and his time as a Navy SEAL.”

The night before Zinke’s speech to the Golden Knights' hockey camp, he was the keynote speaker at a Republican Attorneys General Association dinner and reception in Tahoe, Nevada (Zinke and his staff flew commercial to Vegas from here). On the day of the speech to the hockey camp, Zinke traveled to a small town outside of Vegas to announce winners of Interior Department grant awards.

This announcement was official Interior Department business. However, Zinke’s staff tacked it on to his schedule after the planning for the Vegas trip was well under way. The hockey camp speech was motivation for the Nevada excursion on the taxpayer’s dime, but Zinke was not forthcoming about this at first.

The Inspector General’s office wrote, “When asked whether his speech to the Golden Knights was the first event on that trip’s itinerary to be planned, Zinke initially said no, but he then acknowledged that it could have been.”

“But it didn’t drive the schedule,” Zinke told the watchdog. “The priority was not the hockey team.”

However, the grant announcement in a small town outside of Vegas was the last item added to his schedule and his previously scheduled hockey camp speech in Vegas was why Interior picked the small town as the location for the announcement. A career Interior official told the Inspector General’s office that these grant announcements are usually just made via press release and, to her knowledge, have not involved travel by the Secretary.

The report also stated that Zinke’s staff made no attempt to reschedule the speech to the hockey camp; Golden Knights officials said they would have been happy to accommodate Zinke’s schedule so that he could have flown commercial. The expensive flight “could have been avoided if the speech to the Golden Knights had not been on Zinke’s itinerary or if the time of the event had been changed,” stated the Inspector General report.

During this investigation, the Inspector General’s office found broader issues.

“We have found the documentation and adherence to Departmental travel policies deficient and without proper management oversight and accountability,” the Office of Inspector General wrote in November. “Our investigation has been delayed by absent, or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips and a review process that failed to include proper documentation and accountability.”

The Inspector General faulted, in part, Interior’s Office of Solicitor, which was headed by Acting Solicitor Jorjani.

A Missing Paper Trail

Similar issues hampered another investigation. The Interior Department “did not document its plans or reasons” for reassigning dozens of its top career officials last year, the agency’s Office of Inspector General wrote in another report issued last month. Because there was no paper trail, the watchdog couldn’t tell if the Department broke the law.

The watchdog went on to note that a board convened to make reassignment decisions was filled completely by the Trump Administration’s political appointees. These boards are supposed to have a mix of political staff and career employees to guard against reassignments based on political considerations, according to federal guidance from the Office of Personnel Management.

When asked “who in the Department leadership ordered the reassignment of senior executives, no one could provide an answer.”

The board was chaired by James Cason, Zinke’s associate deputy secretary. The New York Times described him as “the key architect of what some Interior Department employees now call the Thursday night massacre”—a reference to the reassignments. Among its other seven voting members at the time of the mass reassignments: Acting Solicitor Daniel Jorjani; Lori K. Mashburn, White House liaison at the Interior Department; and Douglas Domenech, White House senior advisor at Interior.

The watchdog found that 29 affected senior executives, such as Joel Clement, had no forewarning at all that a reassignment was coming, and that the board had not “effectively communicated” with any of the 35 executives. Federal guidance states that agencies should engage employees before reassigning them to gauge if the assignment makes sense, such as whether their skills and qualifications line up with their new jobs. Zinke’s Interior Department didn’t do that.

“Executive branch agencies need to make sure they’re getting the most value for taxpayers,” Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) told Government Executive, in response to the reassignments. “Moving employees to positions where they don’t contribute isn’t good government.”

Members on the board, formally called the Executive Resource Board, or ERB, provided three reasons for the reassignments to the Inspector General’s office. The watchdog found at least two of the reasons clearly didn’t hold water. Overall, the Inspector General’s office “found no evidence that the ERB evaluated the proposed reassignments against the three stated reasons.” Four reassigned executives didn’t meet any of the rationales provided.

For instance, the board members said they wanted more senior executives out of the DC area and in field offices throughout the rest of the country. But four executives were assigned to DC from the field—the exact number assigned from DC out to the field—“effectively negating” that rationale in the words of the Office of Inspector General.

Another stated reason was to move senior executives who had a “long tenure” in their position. Yet the board had no definition of how much time was a “long tenure.” The Office of Inspector General used five years as a benchmark and found that two-thirds of the reassigned executives were in their jobs for less than five years. Eleven were in their positions for fewer than two years. And one reassigned executive had been in their position for fewer than eight months.

When the Inspector General’s office asked board members “who in the Department leadership ordered the reassignment of senior executives, no one could provide an answer,” according to the report.

Stonewalling

In response to some oversight efforts, Zinke’s Interior Department has taken months to provide overseers with threadbare amounts of information in response to questions. One episode involves slow-walking Congress’s investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, on controversial interactions Zinke had with Republican Senators.

Last summer, the Affordable Care Act was within a few votes of repeal by the Senate—which would have sent the bill to President Trump for his signature to undo the controversial law better known as Obamacare. A handful of Republican Senators joined Democrats in sinking one of the Trump Administration’s top legislative priorities.

It was a “troubling message” from Zinke. – Senator Sullivan (R-AK)

One of those Republican Senators was Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, whose largely rural state had benefitted in some ways from the Affordable Care Act.

After her vote, Zinke threatened Murkowski and fellow Republican Senator Dan Sullivan also of Alaska with retribution for her vote, according to a widely cited account in the Anchorage Dispatch News, the state’s top newspaper. Sullivan indicated that Zinke’s call implied a threat to Interior Department programs and activities that affect Alaska.

Alaska—like many Western states—is highly impacted by decisions by the Interior Department, which manages vast swaths of federally owned land out West, runs National Parks, serves Native American communities, and protects fish and wildlife, among other responsibilities. The Dispatch News wrote that, “efforts and issues on the line include nominations of Alaskans to Interior posts, an effort to build a road out of King Cove through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and future opportunities to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and expand drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, among other regulatory issues that are a priority for Murkowski and Sullivan.”

Senator Sullivan told the Dispatch News that Zinke called him about Murkowski’s vote. It was a “troubling message” from Zinke, he said.

“I tried to push back on behalf of all Alaskans. … We're facing some difficult times and there's a lot of enthusiasm for the policies that Secretary Zinke and the president have been talking about with regard to our economy. But the message was pretty clear,” he said, adding that Murkowski also received a call from Zinke.

Murkowski said the call was “difficult.” She dismissed characterization of the call as a “threat,” but told The Hill, “I think it’s very clear based on my conversation with the secretary that he was just sharing the concern that the president had expressed to him to pass on to me.”

Concerned that Zinke’s efforts could have run afoul of laws constraining the use of executive branch resources to lobby Congress, two House Democrats requested that the Government Accountability Office investigate the episode. In late September, the GAO formally asked the Interior Department four questions.

It took half a year for the Government Accountability Office to receive a reply from Jorjani, Zinke’s top attorney, in late March. That letter became public last week.

In response to the first question, Jorjani confirmed that Zinke called both Murkowksi and Sullivan as the Dispatch News reported.

But Jorjani “decline[d] to provide further details about what was said as such details are immaterial to the legal issues you have raised,” he wrote.

In the curt two-page letter, Jorjani asserted multiple times that, “regardless of the topic discussed” on the call, there were no legal violations.

GAO’s spokesman told the Huffington Post, which first reported on the letter, that “no final determination has been made yet” on whether any laws were broken.

One-Way Pen Pals

Other overseers are still waiting to hear back.

Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, is waiting for Zinke’s Interior Department to respond to 29 letters requesting information or documents.

Two of those letters relate to the Interior Department’s abrupt decision to end funding for an independent study on the health effects of mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

The Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement stated in an August 18, 2017, letter that the decision came about from a review of grants over $100,000. But no other grants were canceled.

An initial letter from Grijalva and other Members of Congress asking Zinke for information was sent in August. Grijalva followed up with another letter in October.

“It increasingly appears as if DOI ended the study because of fears that it would conclusively show that mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining is a serious threat to the health of people living in Appalachia,” Grijalva wrote. “Cutting off funding for a scientific study because it will likely produce uncomfortable results for powerful administration allies is unconscionable, especially when these political games are affecting public health.”

Grijalva wanted to know what happened to the canceled funding. He still wants to know. His office told POGO it is still waiting on a response.

The Interior Department did not respond to POGO’s request for comment.

“Lapses in Judgement”

Before he became Interior Secretary, Zinke showed signs of hostility to oversight in an episode involving whistleblowers.

When he was Montana’s sole member of the House of Representatives, Zinke defended a former Navy SEAL colleague and friend, Admiral Brian Losey, against findings by the Defense Department’s Office of Inspector General that Losey had retaliated against employees he thought were whistleblowers.

“Admiral Losey appeared to be a serial 'retaliator.' The evidence was overwhelming. He allegedly broke the law,” said Grassley in April 2016.

While the story is not black and white, Zinke saw things in his own stark way that were most favorable to his friend, Losey. Zinke publicly denounced the investigation and the whistleblowers: “An entrusted, entrenched bureaucracy was allowed to hide behind threats, hide behind whistleblower [sic], hide behind rules that were intended to protect command and not to erode it.”

Zinke had it backwards. Those rules are not intended to protect command; they were created to protect subordinates whose whistleblowing could anger their superiors.

When he was a Navy SEAL, Zinke had his own run-in with a military investigation. The Intercept reported that anonymous sources said Zinke had repeatedly lied about why he was traveling on the government’s dime—two SEAL officers found he engaged in a “pattern of travel fraud.” When these concerns emerged earlier during his run for Congress in 2014, Zinke released military records from 1999 that cited his “lapses in judgement.”

But in response to questions posed by the Senate as part of his confirmation process last year, Zinke stated in writing that he had never been investigated for violating any federal law, regulation, or ordinance.

By: Nick Schwellenbach
Director of Investigations, POGO

Nick Schwellenbach Nick Schwellenbach's areas of expertise include: Government Oversight, Wasteful Contractor Spending, Open Government, Financial Sector, Whistleblower Issues.

Topics: Government Accountability, Energy and Natural Resources

Related Content: Ethics, Congressional Oversight, Energy & Environment, Information Access

Authors: Nick Schwellenbach

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