Spot­light on Zinke: The in­te­rior sec­re­tary is push­ing to keep his job.

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JULIET EILPERIN, LISA REIN AND JOSH DAWSEY juliet.eilperin@wash­post.com lisa.rein@wash­post.com joshua.dawsey@wash­post.com Alice Crites, Sarah El­li­son and Dar­ryl Fears con­tributed to this re­port.

White House of­fi­cials have iden­ti­fied In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke as the Cab­i­net mem­ber most vul­ner­a­ble to a con­gres­sional probe un­der a Demo­cratic House ma­jor­ity in Jan­uary, putting the col­or­ful sec­re­tary closer into the pres­i­dent’s crosshairs, ac­cord­ing to two se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials briefed on the mat­ter.

The new assess­ment comes as Pres­i­dent Trump is weigh­ing whether to dis­miss Zinke, ac­cord­ing to the of­fi­cials, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss per­son­nel mat­ters. Trump has told aides he will make a de­ci­sion next week af­ter he re­turns from Paris.

At the White House on Fri­day, Trump gave Zinke a tepid vote of con­fi­dence. Asked whether he would fire Zinke, the pres­i­dent said “No” but quickly added, “I’m go­ing to look into any com­plaints.”

Zinke’s per­sonal con­duct and man­age­ment de­ci­sions have spurred at least 15 in­ves­ti­ga­tions, nine of which have been closed. The most se­ri­ous one, which the In­te­rior Depart­ment’s act­ing in­spec­tor gen­eral re­ferred to the Jus­tice Depart­ment last month, fo­cuses on whether the sec­re­tary used his of­fice for per­sonal gain in con­nec­tion with a land deal he forged in White­fish, Mont., with Hal­libur­ton Chair­man David Le­sar and other in­vestors.

Re­cently re­leased pub­lic records show that Zinke has taken an un­con­ven­tional ap­proach to his job at times, in­clud­ing ar­rang­ing meet­ings with mul­ti­ple bil­lion­aires and tak­ing 66 days of per­sonal leave dur­ing his first year and a half on the job.

Zinke has sought to stay on, telling White House of­fi­cials he did noth­ing wrong and urg­ing them to post­pone any de­ci­sion.

The pres­i­dent is mainly fo­cused on the fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Zinke’s role in the Mon­tana land deal, the of­fi­cials said, though White House aides are as­sess­ing sev­eral as­pects of his job per­for­mance.

Trump has voiced con­cern about Zinke’s con­duct and has groused that it could be­come a prob­lem for him. Un­like for­mer En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt, who stayed in of­fice for months af­ter al­le­ga­tions sur­faced about his spend­ing and man­age­ment de­ci­sions, Zinke does not have the same kind of close re­la­tion­ship that Pruitt and Trump shared.

House Democrats such as Rep. Raúl M. Gri­jalva (D-Ariz.), slated to take the gavel of the House Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mit­tee next year, are al­ready gear­ing up to grill Zinke on his per­sonal con­duct and man­age­ment de­ci­sions.

On Wed­nes­day, Gri­jalva said he and his col­leagues want the in­te­rior sec­re­tary to pro­vide an­swers on sev­eral fronts. Last month, the In­te­rior Depart­ment’s act­ing in­spec­tor gen­eral, Mary Ken­dall, re­ferred that in­quiry, which is ex­am­in­ing whether Zinke used his of­fice for per­sonal gain, to the Jus­tice Depart­ment.

“This is our check and bal­ance, our con­sti­tu­tional obli­ga­tion and our ju­ris­dic­tion,” Gri­jalva said. “Us ex­er­cis­ing our over­sight and ac­count­abil­ity re­spon­si­bil­i­ties is not ask­ing for a war with the ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

New emails re­leased this week to the en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy group the Sierra Club un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act show that the sec­re­tary met a wealthy de­vel­oper from Sacra­mento to dis­cuss wildlife is­sues af­ter a col­lege friend and po­lit­i­cal sup­porter de­scribed An­gelo Tsakopou­los as “a very pow­er­ful bil­lion­aire Cal­i­for­nia Lib­eral Demo­crat.”

Ed Hagerty — who played foot­ball in col­lege with Zinke at the Univer­sity of Ore­gon and has worked in en­ergy in­vest­ing — donated $10,000 in 2012 to a su­per PAC Zinke es­tab­lished, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral records.

“I do know he also has pow­er­ful feel­ings that con­cern the Army Corps of En­gi­neers and their work within the state of Cal­i­for­nia,” Hagerty wrote in a June 23, 2017, email.

Hagerty asked Zinke, whom he re­ferred to as “Z-Man,” “Would it be pos­si­ble to ar­range a meet­ing for An­gelo with some­one high up on your staff?”

Zinke replied an hour and a half later: “Ed, I would be glad to take the meet­ing per­son­ally.”

Tsakopou­los is a land de­vel­oper who un­suc­cess­fully chal­lenged fed­eral re­stric­tions on plow­ing up wet­lands un­der the Clean Wa­ter Act. In 2002, the Supreme Court up­held a rul­ing by the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the 9th Cir­cuit that Tsakopou­los vi­o­lated the law when he used a bull­dozer with a deep plow to rip up wet­lands he owned in an ef­fort to con­vert them into agri­cul­tural land.

Ac­cord­ing to Zinke’s of­fi­cial cal­en­dar, three months later the meet­ing took place in the sec­re­tary’s con­fer­ence room, billed “to dis­cuss how farm­ers, de­vel­op­ers, busi­ness in­ter­est can work with fed­eral agen­cies to con­serve wildlife more ef­fi­ciently.”

Marika Rose, a con­sul­tant for Tsakopou­los, said the de­vel­oper had a con­flict and sent a rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­stead.

Asked about the meet­ing, In­te­rior Depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Swift said in an emailed state­ment, “Work­ing with the pri­vate sec­tor to con­serve wildlife and habi­tat has been a re­cur­ring theme in the Sec­re­tary’s ten­ure so it’s un­sur­pris­ing that he had a meet­ing on that is­sue in 2017.”

But Michael Brune, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Sierra Club, said the ex­change showed how per­sonal con­nec­tions are driv­ing de­ci­sions at the In­te­rior Depart­ment. Ear­lier this year, the agency pro­posed chang­ing En­dan­gered Species Act reg­u­la­tions in a way that would make it more dif­fi­cult to de­clare pro­tected habi­tat.

“Ryan Zinke has proven over and over again that he is in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing he works for the peo­ple, not his foot­ball bud­dies and their bil­lion­aire con­tacts,” Brune said in an email. “Don­ald Trump needs to fire Zinke rather than al­low him to abuse his power to en­rich him­self and his friends for an­other day longer.”

The June 2017 email ex­change is not the only time Zinke or his aides had emailed about whether to meet with bil­lion­aires. In April 2017 the sec­re­tary agreed to meet en­tre­pre­neur Palmer Luckey, whom con­ser­va­tive ac­tivist Charles John­son de­scribed as some­one “who sold his com­pany to Ocu­lus Rift for $2.5B.”

In for­ward­ing the re­quest, Scott McEwen — co-author of Zinke’s mem­oir, “Amer­i­can Com­man­der” — wrote: “An­other Bil­lion­aire wants a meet­ing — up to you guys. I don’t know this guy, can’t con­firm the al­leged meet­ing with the pres., but con­firmed he did make some se­ri­ous cash lately.”

Pub­lic records also show that Zinke took 66 “per­sonal days” be­tween March 2017 and Au­gust 2018, ex­clud­ing week­ends and fed­eral hol­i­days. That to­tal ex­ceeds the 39 an­nual days off fed­eral se­nior ex­ec­u­tives would be given dur­ing that same pe­riod.

Swift, who noted that Cab­i­net mem­bers are ex­cluded from the stan­dard fed­eral leave sys­tem since they of­ten work out­side nor­mal work hours and while trav­el­ing, said Zinke “gen­er­ally chooses to work through the week­end and then take his per­sonal time to spend with his wife and chil­dren who do not live in D.C.”

“Dur­ing th­ese days out­side of the of­fice, the Sec­re­tary con­tin­ues to work on De­part­men­tal mat­ters,” she said, em­pha­siz­ing that he has worked “at least 35 week­ends” out­side Wash­ing­ton and on some days that were marked “per­sonal on his cal­en­dar.”

Zinke’s sched­ule shows that he worked for nine week­end days, most of them early in his ten­ure when he was tour­ing na­tional mon­u­ments. On 18 week­end days, his sched­ule in­cluded flights as part of his of­fi­cial du­ties. All those trips were re­turn flights to Wash­ing­ton from his homes in Cal­i­for­nia and Mon­tana, or from na­tional mon­u­ments.

Cen­ter for West­ern Pri­or­i­ties spokesman Aaron Weiss ques­tioned why the sec­re­tary would take so much time off when Cab­i­net mem­bers usu­ally serve for only a few years.

“You don’t have a lot of time to get stuff done,” Weiss said. “What kind of mes­sage does that send if you’re not even in the of­fice ap­prox­i­mately one week out of four?”

Zinke’s aides have re­jected the no­tion that he is re­signed to leav­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Af­ter Politico re­ported Thurs­day night that Zinke had be­gun dis­cussing the prospect of tak­ing a job with Fox News ex­ec­u­tives and had told as­so­ci­ates he would re­sign by the end of the year, the net­work and Swift dis­missed the claims.

Zinke has not spo­ken about the in­quiries he faces this week, though he tweeted on Wed­nes­day: “Con­grat­u­la­tions to all the new mem­bers of the House and Se­nate. I look for­ward to work­ing with all of you to ad­vance im­por­tant @In­te­rior pri­or­i­ties like re­build­ing @NatlParkSer­vice in­fra­struc­ture, end­ing #Opi­oidCri­sis in In­dian Coun­try, and achiev­ing #En­er­gyDom­i­nance.”

EVAN VUCCI/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke at the White House last month. Two Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials said Zinke’s job may be in jeop­ardy.

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