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How a new ethics investigation fits into Ryan Zinke’s other problems

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has long been scrutinized for potentially mixing personal and official business; he is currently the subject of at least four different ethics investigations. In the latest, Zinke is coming under fire for allegedly securing free travel for his wife. Washington Post reporter Juliet Eilperin helped break the story and discusses the details with William Brangham.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another member of President Trump's cabinet has come under scrutiny for alleged ethical lapses.

    Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is being investigated on several fronts.

    And, as William Brangham reports, they include misusing taxpayer funds for family travel and using his office to further his and others' business interests.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    The interior secretary is currently under at least four different investigations by the department's inspector general. According to The Washington Post, the most recent I.G. report concerns allegations that Zinke tried to secure free travel for his wife in government vehicles.

    Any non-government employee is supposed to reimburse the government for those kinds of trips. But Zinke allegedly tried to get his wife a volunteer job at the department, so she could travel with him for free.

    Zinke has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

    The secretary is also being investigated separately for a few different matters, including his involvement in a land deal in Montana that could benefit Zinke and his wife, Zinke's reversal of a decision to grant a casino in Connecticut, after meeting with lobbyists from a different casino operator, and his decision to redraw the boundaries of two national monuments.

    For more on these questions, I'm joined now by The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin, who has been covering this extensively.

    Juliet, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    You are one of the reporters who helped break this most recent story about the questions overseeing Zinke's wife's travel. There have been other questions about Zinke's travel and his use of taxpayer money.

    Can you explain how this all fits together?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Sure.

    Secretary Zinke has come under scrutiny from the early months of the administration for how he spent taxpayer funds. And they have dealt with a range of different issues.

    It's dealt with everything from the fact that he has combined political appearances with some of his official travel, the fact that, for example, his unarmed security detail accompanied him on vacation last summer to Turkey and Greece, which cost taxpayers more than $25,000, and the fact that his wife has come with him, as well as some of his associates, on official trips, and that, too, has translated at times into additional taxpayer expense.

    So all of those issues have raised potential flags and prompted some of these inquiries.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned, there were several other investigations going on into some of his activities, including the blocking of this casino in Connecticut, the redrawing of two national monuments, but also this land deal in Whitefish, Montana.

    Can you explain a little bit about what that question is about?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Sure.

    There's a development in Whitefish called 95 Karrow, which involves the chairman of Halliburton, a major oil services firm which is potentially affected by Interior decisions, as well as a local developer, and the Zinkes, because the land that they have both donated to the town, as well as adjacent property that they own, could be affected by the development.

    Secretary Zinke, who stepped down as president from the foundation and handed the reins to his wife, has been involved in discussions and even a meeting with David Lesar, his son and this developer while in office here in Washington. And that is now the subject of an inspector general probe.

  • William Brangham:

    Stepping back from these ethical questions, can you also just remind us a little bit about the impact Zinke has had on the Interior Department, what kind of policies he's been enacting?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Secretary Zinke has been an active proponent of energy development on public lands and offshore and has been pursuing President Trump's agenda in a number of ways.

    He's reversed several significant rules that were put in place by Barack Obama and has been making more energy development available for private interests on public lands and public waters. We have seen him help draft recommendations which have shrunk national monuments, as you mentioned, protected areas out West.

    And we're seeing just an array of activities, whether it has to do with scientific findings, how the department considers, for example, findings of its own researchers, to offshore wind developments and a range of other areas.

    So there's no question he's been a very active member of the president's Cabinet.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, thank you, as always.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Thanks.

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