The White House is increasingly worried about allegations of misconduct against Interior Minister Ryan Zinke, according to two senior officials in the administration, and President Trump has asked assistants for more information on a Montana land agreement under scrutiny by the Ministry of Justice .
Trump told his aides that he fears Zinke has violated rules while serving as a secretary of the interior and is worried about the referral by the Justice Department, according to officials who spoke of the anonymity condition due to the sensitivity of the matter. But the president has not said whether to shoot former SEAL Marine and the adviser and asked for more information, officials said.
This week, the Office of the Internal Inspector of the Interior commissioned the Department of Justice to investigate – one of the many checks on the secretary's behavior – to determine whether the criminal investigation is justified. This referral concerns Zinke's participation in a Whitefish, Mont. Land development agreement, supported by David J. Lesar, chairman of the Halliburton Oil Services Company.
The business and retail park, known as the 95 Karrow, would be near land owned by Zinke and his wife Lola. The general inspector examines Zinke's discussions with Lesar and others about the evolution that he could use to use his office to enrich himself.
Interior did not play a role in the Montana project, but Congressional Democrats called for a survey in June because the department issues regulations for the development of oil and gas that have financial implications on companies like Lesar.
No decision has been taken on Zinke's term, officials said. But the shift in the West Wing highlights the extent to which the interior secretary's stance has receded in recent months.
The White House and the Interior refused to comment on Thursday. Zinke said he intends to stay in place, according to a person who recently spoke to him and talked about the anonymity condition to discuss a private conversation.
The trust of White House officials in the 57-year-old Zinke – a vocal supporter of the President's pressure to expand coal, oil and gas production in the United States – began to erode at the beginning of the year after he traveled to Florida to meet with O Governor Rick Scott (R) and announced that it would exempt the state from the new government plan to allow the opening of the state's coasts. The move, which was not co-ordinated with West Wing's political store, showed the five-year leasing plan to legal challenges and triggered impetus by governors from other countries.
However, officials' concerns have been intensified as allegations have increased against Zinke, who denies the violation. In October, the Internal Control Unit issued a report that found Zinke's practices and efforts to designate his wife as a volunteer of the department had put red flags on employees of internal ethics.
Zinke is the second member of Trump's cabinet to be examined by the Ministry of Justice. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency's chief inspector referred to a case involving the lease of manager Scott Pruitt of lobby manager Steve Hart and his wife, Vicki, to federal prosecutors. This research seems to have lost momentum after Pruitt's resignation in July, according to two people who knew the research that spoke about the anonymity condition due to the sensitivity of the subject.
A reference to the Ministry of Justice means that prosecutors will investigate whether a criminal investigation is justified. An organization's chief inspector refers cases to the Ministry of Justice only when he has decided that there may be criminal offenses and does so regularly before completing his own investigation.
New York University Professor of Public Service, Paul C. Light, who wrote a book for general inspectors, said in an interview that he regularly informed prosecutors of possible misconduct in the services they oversee. However, he said it was much less common for them to refer cases involving a member of the Cabinet.
"It's unusual," Light said. "A senior official, this is a big ticket issue."
Mary L. Kendall, General Inspector of Home Affairs, conducts at least three separate catheters linked to Zinke. One concerns his decision not to grant permission to two Connecticut races to run a casino together despite the fact that career staff recommended the move after MGM Resorts International took action. Another focuses on whether interns recaptured the boundaries of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to benefit Utah Ret. Mike Noel (R), who owns property in the area.
The Montana project is another. When the referral to the Ministry of Justice was reported by the Washington Post on Tuesday, it was not yet clear which of the detectors had been overturned for possible criminal investigation.
A White House senior official said the White House understood that the investigation had checked whether the secretary "used his office to help himself".
Last year, Zinke's wife, Lola, signed an agreement that would allow the development of 95 Karrow to use the land owned by the Zinkes Foundation, the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation. The proposed hotel, retail and microbreweries area is close to several properties belonging to Zinkes.
Details of the land agreement were first reported by Politico.
Zinke resigned from the post of chairman of the institution after joining Trump's Cabinet, and his wife took over this status. But federal records show that the Home Secretary has continued to discuss the project with Lesar and his son, along with local developer Casey Malmquist.
On August 3, 2017, according to documents published under the Freedom of Information Act, Zinke met with the three men at his Washington office, took them on a private tour of the Lincoln Memorial and had dinner with them. Next month, Malmquist e-mail the development plans and request his input.
"I want you to know that any help you need to protect and promote your vision for the park, please let me know and make sure it is announced and executed," writes Malmquist in an exchange that Zinke has sent to his assistant.
Zinkes have two companies, Continental Divide International and Double Tap, which have several plots of land near the proposed project. According to Zinke's most recent financial information form, he received between $ 15,001 and $ 50,000 the rent or royalties from Continental Divide International last year and between $ 5,001 and $ 15,000 from Double Tap.
Zinke resigned his leadership positions in the two companies in March 2017.
The properties of the Continental Divide estimate that the tax value of 2018 was $ 858,160, while the Double Tap properties were $ 467,400.
In an interview Thursday, Whitefish City Planning Officer David Taylor reported that Secretary's involvement in the project was limited to the parking and access agreement his institution struck with developers.
Zinke had expressed an interest in opening a Whitefish brewery in the past, Taylor said, but Karrow's 95th location plan did not say who would run the microbrewery.
"They never said who would own the brewery," said Taylor.
At present, the Park of Peace – whose land is estimated at just over $ 501,000, according to the Foundation's tax vouchers in 2017 – is mainly used for sledding in the winter. There is no way to head straight to the park because the Zinkes have put a gateway at the request of neighbors living along Murray Avenue, said Taylor so as not to disturb them with extra traffic.
"It looked like," We will help you do this if you help us do that, "said Taylor, noting that additional parking will benefit visitors to the institution's development and park.
Investigations about Zinke's behavior take place as he seeks someone whom the president may appoint as a general inspector of the department. Kendall has been actively serving since the beginning of 2009.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Kendall refused to discuss pending investigations, but said he supports Trump's idea of appointing someone to serve permanently.
"The bottom line is, I think the body needs a properly appointed and confirmed IG," said Kendall. "Time is right, maybe it was right some time ago."
Magda Jean-Louis, Alice Crites and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.