Ryan Zinke’s first 13 months as interior secretary—a period punctuated by investigations into his conduct and dubious spending of taxpayer money—were summed up in a recent internal investigation. On April 10, the Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on Zinke’s hasty reassignment of 27 career staffers, many of whom worked in climate science and conservation, and a disproportionate number of whom were Native Americans. The move was called politically motivated and illegal by some. But OIG investigators couldn’t make such a determination, because the reassignment team “did not document its plan or the reasons it used.” Essentially, his department kept bad paperwork.
The report’s findings are consistent with how Zinke has run the department. Time and again, his decisions have been made in a rushed fashion with little public input or transparency. Take his sudden plan to reorganize his 70,000-employee department, or to throw open offshore drilling areas—decisions that upset both conservatives and progressives.
James G. Watt was the last interior secretary who generated so much controversy—and he lost his job. But that was only after he became a political liability for Ronald Reagan. Thirty-five years later, in an administration swirling with controversy and under a president who cares little about traditional professionalism, it seems Zinke can do pretty much whatever he wants.
Consider yet another OIG report released this month, this one on Zinke’s penchant for booking chartered airplanes. Investigators looked into a June 2017 trip, during which visited the Golden Knights hockey teams and gave what DOI described as “sort of an inspirational-type speech, one that a coach might give." The problem was that Zinke charged taxpayers $12,375 to charter a flight from Las Vegas to Montana after the speech, in which he didn’t even mention Interior, according to the report. It turned out the hockey team had also offered to reschedule his talk so he could book commercial flights. Zinke shrugged off the speech as one that happened to coincide with a nearby event with county commissioners, though OIG found that his schedulers booked that appearance after his plans were finalized.
Neither OIG report will likely lead to any disciplinary action. But they provide a window into Zinke’s priorities. The hockey team Zinke spoke to is owned by William Foley II, a billionaire who donated to Zinke’s congressional campaigns, and Zinke’s speech, according to the OIG report, was all about his time as a Navy SEAL. Nonetheless, Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s acting solicitor, told investigators the occasion “aligned with the DOI’s priorities.” The trip, funded by taxpayer dollars, was “ten thousand percent compliant” with Interior’s mission, he said.
The DOI seems at ease arguing that catering to donors and espousing the merits of Zinke’s Navy career are department priorities. (There’s speculation Zinke will gun for higher office in the near future.) In a way, it’s more of the same. Zinke has shown he values private interest over public comments when it comes to land, and that his department’s priorities are heavy on use and light on conservation.
If the past year is any indication, the latest OIG reports will result in little more than some bad press for Zinke. For one, there’s always another Trump-related scandal that sucks up more oxygen in Washington. Plus, Scott Pruitt is probably receiving more discussion in the Oval Office than Zinke. The lone instance of a reported feud between Zinke and Trump came after the quick exemption of Florida from Zinke’s offshore drilling proposal, but it was later revealed that the White House orchestrated the stunt to give a win to Governor Rick Scott, a longtime Trump supporter who’s running for the Senate.
Compared with Watt, the secretary who served under Reagan, Zinke has done plenty more that could cost him his job—like his office spending, vacations with a security detail, use of a personal e-mail address, public questioning of staff loyalty, treatment of minority women, obsession with flags, potential censorship of science, and aversion to diversity.
Two other government agencies have said they’ll investigate Zinke’s travel and reassignments. But unless those turn up documented illegal behavior, it’s hard to imagine Zinke will get the boot.