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Zinke’s disregard for ethics obligations disappointing

by Daily Inter Lake
| February 20, 2022 12:00 AM

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was put on the defensive last week following the release of an inspector general report that concluded Zinke misused his Cabinet position to leverage his stake in a Whitefish commercial development, then misrepresented his actions when ethics officials asked him about it.

The 32-page IG report was compiled by Trump nominee Mark Greenblatt and is readily available online at oversight.gov. With Zinke currently campaigning to regain the U.S. House seat he held prior to leading the Interior, voters would be prudent to read the report in full and draw their own conclusions.

We did, and based on the evidence presented by Greenblatt, we can only surmise that Zinke did in fact knowingly violate his ethics obligations. And while not criminal — federal prosecutors declined to pursue charges — the findings are certainly disappointing.

The investigation centers around the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation that Zinke launched in 2007 to build a community sledding hill and park on an old gravel pit in Whitefish.

Upon assuming his Interior post in January 2017, Zinke committed to resigning from the foundation and no longer being involved in foundation matters to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Yet, the IG report shows no less than 64 emails and text messages in which Zinke communicated directly with the developers of a commercial project immediately adjacent to the Peace Park property, including communications about the proposed use of the Peace Park for a parking lot and Zinke’s interest in operating a microbrewery onsite. 

In a September 2017 email with the subject line “Peace Park Documents,” Zinke wrote to the developers “My schedule has me in wf in beginning of november. It would be [a] good idea to walk the property. All the best, z.”

Other emails around the same timeframe reveal that Zinke offered detailed input on various design aspects of the project, and continued with land negotiations.

Clearly, Zinke stayed involved with the foundation and even shepherded the Peace Park’s business after he committed to stepping away from all foundation matters.

“Zinke had repeated, ongoing substantive negotiations with the developers by text and email messages, as well as phone and in-person meetings, regarding the Foundation’s involvement in the 95 Karrow project even after his formal resignation from the Foundation and while he was Secretary of the Interior,” the report states.

What’s more, when ethics officials asked him about his continued involvement in the foundation, the IG said he offered incomplete and “misleading” answers that aimed to cover up his past involvement.

Again, they’re all laid out in the report for anyone to read. Check it out for yourself.

Not surprisingly, Zinke chalked up the investigation as “a political hit job” from “the deep state.”

A statement from his campaign said the Zinkes “are proud of the children’s sledding park that dozens of kids use every weekend and countless locals use for exercise every day.”

On Twitter, Zinke wrote, “Only in Biden’s corrupt admin is talking to my neighbor a sin.”

Essentially he’s saying that his communications with the developers is no big deal — even if it directly violated his federal ethics obligations — and was only for the best interest of the community.

The report, he says, makes a mountain out of a molehill. 

We say: Do better.

Zinke’s actions detailed in the IG report show a problematic level of carelessness, and more importantly, a callous disregard for the commitment he made upon accepting the Interior post.

What’s the point of an oath if public officials get to pick and choose when to abide by it?

It’s about trust. If Zinke wants to once again represent Montana in Congress he needs to prove that he has learned to appreciate the obligations — and yes, sacrifices — that come with holding public office.

And he should address the IG report with sincerity, not social media bravado. Give us an honest assessment of the lessons learned.

That’d be a good first step — we won’t hold our breath.