“Zinke’s days of plundering our lands and enriching himself and his friends are over.”
By Julia Conley
After racking up 17 federal investigations into suspected ethics violations and facing likely questioning by a House panel over his conduct in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is set to resign from the Trump administration at the end of the year.
President Donald Trump announced Zinke’s impending departure in a tweet Saturday morning, saying that a replacement would be announced next week.
Ethics watchdogs and climate action groups alike applauded the announcement, as Zinke’s close ties to the fossil fuel industry were cause for great concern about his lack of interest in fulfilling the stated mission of the Interior Department, instead giving favorable treatment to oil and gas companies.
“Zinke’s days of plundering our lands and enriching himself and his friends are over,” said Nicole Ghio, a program manager at Friends of the Earth (FOE). “With an average of nearly one federal investigation opened into his conduct in office per month, Zinke’s highly questionable ethics have finally caught up with him. Now, he is just another name on Trump’s list of disgraced cabinet officials, which the Republican-led Congress has failed to hold accountable.”
“Ryan Zinke’s tenure at the Department of Interior was a disaster for public lands of historic proportions,” said Chris Saeger, executive director of the Western Values Project. “The public and Congress should continue their commitment to vigilant oversight over the ongoing ethical abuses at Interior in order to repair its reputation.”
Zinke’s departure may help him avoid the questioning that Rep. Raul Griljalva (D-Ariz.) planned to subject him to in January when he takes the helm of the House Natural Resources Committee, over a land deal that was backed by a Halliburton executive in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana.
A retail development was planned close to properties owned by Zinke, benefiting both the secretary and the Halliburton official, David Lesar. Since Halliburton also stood to benefit from Zinke’s lax attitude regarding the use of public land by fossil fuel companies, the deal was investigated as a conflict of interest by Interior’s inspector general, Mary Kendall.
Kendall referred the case to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in October, suggesting that a criminal investigation into Zinke’s conduct may be underway.
“This is no kind of victory, but I’m hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page,” wrote Griljalva on Twitter. “It’s time for the Interior Dept to put the public good ahead of the fossil fuel industry, and House Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee will do just that come January.”
FOE has repeatedly called for Zinke’s dismissal, and on Saturday the group recognized the 145,000 Americans who signed petitions condemning Zinke’s conduct in office.
David Bernhardt, Zinke’s deputy and a former oil lobbyist whose clients included Halliburton and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, is widely expected to step in as acting secretary—an appointment that green groups say should cause as much alarm as Zinke’s leadership of the Interior Department.
“With Zinke gone, his likely successor David Bernhardt must now be stopped. Bernhardt’s history of lobbying for special interests, and his deep ties to fossil fuel companies, make him a walking conflict of interest,” said Ghio. “As the new Congress comes into session, Democrats must dig into the corruption at Trump’s Interior Department that exploits our lands and waters for the benefit of corporate profits instead of the American people.”