News · Press Release

Ryan Zinke’s Own Staff Questioned His Poor Ethics

New reporting has uncovered even more details about Ryan Zinke’s ethically fraught tenure as Secretary of Interior

Nearly two years before he resigned at the center of 18 federal investigations, department staffers sounded the alarm that Zinke crossed the line between his government position and his personal financial interests.

Despite having no official role at the Department of Interior, Zinke’s wife frequently joined department meetings and trips. Zinke himself later influenced a Halliburton land deal that would benefit his wife’s businesses, which they jointly shared before he took office.

Bottom line: Zinke’s own staff knew long ago what an inspector general said last year: that Zinke failed to “abide by his ethics obligations” while he was Secretary of the Interior.

DCCC Spokesperson Mallory Payne:
“If Ryan Zinke’s own staff can’t trust him, how can voters expect to? Western Montanans deserve better than a self-dealing politician who can’t tell where his wallet ends and where taxpayer money begins.”

E&E News: Interior officials expressed alarm early about Zinke’s ethics
Corbin Hiar
September 11, 2023

  • Interior Department staffers raised questions early during the Trump administration about then-Secretary Ryan Zinke’s commingling of his public and private lives, newly released documents show — nearly two years before his alleged conflicts of interest helped push him out of the Cabinet.

  • Career ethics officials’ concerns included the unusually active role that Zinke’s wife, Lolita, was playing at Interior, where she often accompanied her husband on work travel and sat in on department meetings despite having no official position there, according to the 2017 documents and subsequent reporting and investigations. Lolita Zinke was simultaneously in charge of two family-run businesses, Continental Divide International LLC and Double Tap LLC, the lawyers noted, along with a nonprofit foundation that Ryan Zinke had co-founded.

  • The two companies and the foundation would later figure in a controversy that POLITICO first uncovered five years ago: [Ryan] Zinke’s involvement in a proposed real estate development project with the then-chair of Halliburton Co., a major oil field services firm that stood to benefit from the Interior Department’s Trump-era energy policies.

  • Interior’s inspector general issued a report last year castigating [Ryan] Zinke’s handling of the real estate project, accusing him of misusing his office, failing to “abide by his ethics obligations,” and making “inaccurate and incomplete statements” about his involvement in the deal…

  • The newly released documents show that, long before that deal came to light, the Interior staffers expressed alarm that the secretary was failing to erect a firewall between his personal interests and the duties of his sprawling, powerful department. The employees also worried that people with a stake in the department’s decisions could use Lolita Zinke as a conduit for influencing her husband’s policies.

  • The lawyers noted that Ryan Zinke hadn’t totally separated himself from Continental Divide and Double Tap, despite promising to resign as a managing member of the companies after being confirmed as secretary.

  • In the newly released documents, other career Interior officials expressed concerns that echoed [Interior Ethics Attorney] McDonnell’s unease about Lolita Zinke’s role.

  • In May 2017, former Assistant Solicitor Edward Keable, who ran the agency’s ethics office at the time, sent a draft memo to McDonnell “regarding Mrs. Zinke attending meetings with the Secretary.”

  • Then, in June 2018, POLITICO revealed that a group funded by David Lesar, the Halliburton leader, was planning a large commercial development that involved land controlled by Lolita Zinke’s foundation and would have benefited her two LLCs.

  • Lolita Zinke used her role as the foundation’s president to assist the development project by pledging to let it use some of the nonprofit’s land for a parking lot, POLITICO wrote in 2018. The two LLCs owned land parcels nearby that could have increased in value if the project had been built.

  • POLITICO also reported that in August 2017, Ryan Zinke met at Interior’s headquarters with [Halliburton’s] Lesar and other developers involved in the Montana project, before discussing the real estate deal with them at dinner later that night.

  • Besides examining the aborted real estate project, the inspector general looked into the secretary’s taxpayer-funded trips with Lolita Zinke and questions about whether he had improperly blocked two Native American tribes from opening a casino in Connecticut.

  • The Interior Department’s inspector general released two reports saying that Zinke had misled agency investigators reviewing the Lesar land project and the Connecticut casino. The latter probe concerned allegations that Zinke was acting at the behest of lobbyists for MGM Resorts International, which owned a competing casino, and lawmakers from Nevada.


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