It’s hard to tell who among the Trump administration has accumulated the most alleged ethics violations in the past year, but Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke certainly ranks right up there.
An ethics watchdog group has asked the Interior Department’s Inspector General to investigate Zinke over an alleged violation of a federal conflict of interest law after reports surfaced that he assisted a Montana–based gun manufacturer and vendor of which he is a shareholder.
On Friday, the Campaign Legal Center sent a letter to Interior Department Inspector General Mary Kendall requesting the investigation after a report by HuffPost revealed Zinke’s involvement with PROOF Research Inc., which manufactures rifles and gun components and materials for fighter jets and stealth bombers. Zinke did not disclose his shares in the company—which was founded in 2011 in the secretary’s hometown of Whitefish, MT—to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics during confirmation hearings last year.
According to the report and comments by Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift, the total value of Zinke’s shares in the company is below the $1,000 threshold requiring a disclosure to be made. However, Zinke and top aides met with PROOF Research executives and a lobbyist in April 2017, just a month after he was confirmed for the Cabinet–level position, HuffPost reported.
PROOF Research holds at least one government contract with the Defense Department worth more than $11 million.
By law, Zinke would be required to recuse himself from any matter that would affect the company, an ethics counsel from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told HuffPost. But Zinke “participated personally and substantially in a particular matter affecting that company’s financial interests,” the Campaign Legal Center noted in its letter.
The letter added:
A government contractor, Proof is a privately held firearms manufacturer and dealer from the Secretary’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana. Secretary Zinke once served as a consultant for the company and continues to hold shares of its stock. After he was confirmed as Interior Secretary, Secretary Zinke personally met with Proof executives and a lobbyist for the company on April 11, 2017. It is clear that the meeting was prearranged and not a spontaneous encounter because the meeting is included in his official daily calendar. According to Proof CEO Larry Murphy, the express purpose of the meeting was to obtain Secretary Zinke’s recommendations, advice, or other assistance in securing taxpayer-funded contracts for Proof.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and strong ally of the National Rifle Association (NRA), worked as a consultant for the company in 2012, for which he was paid about $17,000, according to a disclosure he made while running for a congressional seat. He was tapped by President Donald Trump to serve as interior secretary with little experience and while still a freshman congressman. That nomination followed Zinke and the NRA’s backing of Trump as a presidential candidate.
In August 2017, Zinke appointed Susan LaPierre, co-chair of the NRA’s Women’s Leadership Forum and the wife of NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre, to the board of directors of the National Park Foundation, the National Park Service’s charity organization.
In his first day on the job as secretary, Zinke signed an order repealing an Obama administration directive phasing out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on Fish and Wildlife Service lands. Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s lobbying arm, attended the signing ceremony and praised Zinke, saying, “The NRA looks forward to working with Secretary Zinke in the pursuit of true conservation that respects the rights of America’s outdoorsmen and women.”