HELENA, Mont. (AP) — U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's family is involved in a land deal in his Montana hometown with the head of an energy services giant that does business with the Interior Department, according to records and interviews Tuesday.
The Zinkes' dealings with Halliburton chairman David Lesar, which were first reported by Politico, raise questions of the appearance of a conflict of interest between Zinke and Halliburton, critics said.
A charitable foundation created by Zinke and now run by his wife Lola is allowing a company co-owned by Lesar and his family to use a portion of its land for the development, according to a letter of intent signed by Lola Zinke.
The land was donated by BNSF Railway in 2008 to Zinke's Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation to create a park for children to sled and skate in the winter. Immediately adjacent to the park is an abandoned mill that is the site of Lesar's planned hotel, microbrewery, art gallery and office space.
The Whitefish City Council approved a zoning change for Lesar's project in January, with one of the conditions that the developers sign an agreement with the foundation to build a parking lot that will benefit both the park and the commercial development.
The agreement, which was included in the Whitefish City Council's December meeting packet, gives Lesar foundation land for a parking lot and a separate easement to access the property.
Critics say the land deal gives the appearance of an inappropriate relationship between the secretary and an energy company that stands to benefit from the Trump administration's push to increase drilling on public lands.
They point out that Zinke also owns a home nearby that he wants to turn into a bed and breakfast, and that the development would increase the value of his property.
The Western Values Project, a Whitefish-based conservation group, called for an investigation of Zinke using donated land to help a private developer, and for Zinke to stay out of any future dealings between Halliburton and the Interior Department.
"The sad fact is that this is just the latest example of Zinke attempting to personally benefit from a resource that should benefit the public," said Chris Saeger, executive director of Western Values Project.
Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said the land deal between the foundation and Lesar's company "is not a departmental matter." She did not respond to further inquiries.
Halliburton spokeswoman Emily Mir said Lesar's personal investment in Montana has nothing to do with the company.
"The company is confident that any actions of the Interior Department will not be influenced by Mr. Lesar's personal investment," Mir said in a statement. "Neither Secretary Zinke nor the Foundation that he established have any ownership or investment in the land or the proposed development in which Mr. Lesar has invested."
The Montana Secretary of State's office listed Zinke as a director and an officer of the foundation, but that was changed Tuesday after Whitefish attorney Sean Frampton wrote that Zinke resigned from the foundation last year.
Zinke's wife is still listed as the foundation's president and his daughter, Jennifer Detlefesen, is a director.
Whitefish city planner Dave Taylor said Tuesday the project has been vetted and received a lot of support, though some residents expressed concerns about increased traffic.
Lesar's plans pre-date Zinke becoming Interior Secretary early last year and that the project wouldn't be able to proceed without the developers coming to an agreement with Zinke's foundation, Taylor said.
"He's the main representative of that peace park and they had to talk to him about that property," Taylor said of Zinke. "He's been working on that peace park for years."
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