HUD official resigns following reports of reassignment to Interior

A top official at the Department of Housing and Urban Development who had been announced as a candidate for the Interior Department’s top watchdog position has resigned from the Trump administration, HUD said Friday.

HUD Assistant Secretary Suzanne Tufts "has offered her resignation and it has been accepted," HUD spokesman Raffi Williams wrote in an email.

The announcement closed a week of finger pointing by the White House, Interior and HUD on the choice of Tufts, a GOP operative with no experiencing investigating allegations of unethical behavior. The Interior Department’s office of inspector general has opened several investigations into Zinke’s actions, and a report obtained by POLITICO on Thursday faulted him for seeking to skirt or alter department policies to justify his taxpayer-funded trips with his wife.

Earlier Friday, the White House denied that it had suggested Tufts as a candidate to lead the Interior watchdog.

"The claim we hand-picked Continue reading “HUD official resigns following reports of reassignment to Interior”

White House denies ‘hand picking’ controversial Interior watchdog candidate

The White House denied Friday that it had picked a controversial candidate for the Interior Department’s top watchdog position, raising further questions about who in the administration aimed to put her in the role overseeing the probes of Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“The claim we hand-picked her is completely inaccurate,” White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley told POLITICO. Gidley did not immediately offer more information.

Interior said yesterday that Suzanne Tufts, a Republican political appointee who served as assistant secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “was referred to the Department by the White House as a potential candidate for a position in the Inspector General’s office.”

The White House denial that it picked Tufts is the latest in a round of finger pointing by the White House, Interior and HUD on the choice of Tufts, a GOP operative with no experiencing investigating allegations of unethical behavior. Continue reading “White House denies ‘hand picking’ controversial Interior watchdog candidate”

Interior Dept. probe faults Zinke for travels with wife

The Interior Department’s inspector general faulted Secretary Ryan Zinke and his wife, Lola, for their handling of thousands of dollars’ worth of taxpayer-funded travel, in the latest critical report on the practices of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

A new report says Zinke sought to designate his wife an agency volunteer in order to obtain free travel for her, that he often brought her in federal vehicles in violation of agency policy and that he neglected to get permission from ethics officials when he took campaign donors on a boat trip.

Interior Dept. probe faults Zinke for travels with wife

The Interior Department’s inspector general faulted Secretary Ryan Zinke and his wife, Lola, for their handling of thousands of dollars’ worth of taxpayer-funded travel, in the latest critical report on the practices of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

A new report says Zinke sought to designate his wife an agency volunteer in order to obtain free travel for her, that he often brought her in federal vehicles in violation of agency policy and that he neglected to get permission from ethics officials when he took campaign donors on a boat trip.

Interior accuses Ben Carson of sending ‘false information’ about watchdog

The Interior Department has not hired a Housing and Urban Development political appointee to be its internal watchdog despite a claim by HUD Secretary Ben Carson that the official would join the agency, an Interior spokeswoman said Wednesday,

The Interior statement disputes an email Carson sent on Oct. 12 saying that Suzanne Tufts, a GOP operative with no ethics review experience on her resume, was heading to Interior to become its acting inspector general.

“HUD sent out an email that had false information in it,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email. “Ms. Tufts is not employed by the Department and no decision was ever made to move her to Interior."

Swift said Tufts was referred to the agency by the White House as a potential candidate for a position in the Inspector General’s office, but "[a]t the end of the day, she was not offered a job Continue reading “Interior accuses Ben Carson of sending ‘false information’ about watchdog”

Democrats question whether controversial Interior watchdog pick was vetted

Democratic lawmakers are asking the association of government watchdogs whether it has vetted a controversial candidate who is slated to become the Interior Department’s inspector general and take over the ongoing probes into Secretary Ryan Zinke.

The letter from Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee to the head of the inspectors general group questions whether Suzanne Tufts, a GOP political appointee at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is qualified to oversee the agency’s internal watchdog. Critics have alleged Tufts has no background in ethical investigations, and they worry her appointment could be an effort to undermine the probes on Zinke that the current IG has open.

“It is not clear that the new acting IG is sufficiently qualified or politically independent to take the helm of the Office of Inspector General," states the letter House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Rep. Jared Huffman Continue reading “Democrats question whether controversial Interior watchdog pick was vetted”

HUD political appointee to lead probes of Zinke

A political appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development is replacing the Interior Department’s top internal watchdog, according to an email from HUD Secretary Ben Carson — an unusual arrangement that has ethics watchdogs worried about the fate of several investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

Suzanne Israel Tufts, now HUD’s assistant secretary for administration, will become Interior’s acting inspector general, Carson announced in a Friday email obtained by POLITICO. Interior’s IG office has until now been helmed by Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, who has led probes of Zinke and his wife as well as accusations that the secretary censored climate change reports.

A HUD spokesman confirmed the email came from Carson.

Government ethics watchdogs called the move disturbing, saying that putting a political appointee into the IG’s role raises concerns about how thoroughly the office will investigate the secretary. Inspectors general are usually career personnel Continue reading “HUD political appointee to lead probes of Zinke”

Zinke’s energy export plan knocked as ‘harebrained’

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke drew immediate flak Monday for proposing to use military bases on the West Coast to export coal and natural gas despite the opposition of environmentally minded state governments — with critics saying it just won’t work.

“It’s really impressive how this administration churns out harebrained schemes for their Department of Cock-Eyed Ideas,” Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told POLITICO. “The president must be getting really bad advice. It’s not going to work. Our clean water and clean air laws are still on the books and will still be enforced.“

In an interview with The Associated Press, Zinke cast the idea of using the sites like a former Navy base on a remote Alaskan island as a national security matter because it would ensure that the U.S. can supply allies with cheap energy. And it would circumvent opposition to new fossil fuel exports in Democratic-dominated Continue reading “Zinke’s energy export plan knocked as ‘harebrained’”

Democrats promise to investigate Zinke if House flips

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will face a barrage of congressional inquiries into his business dealings, travels, political activities and relations with industry if Democrats win the House in November, according to lawmakers who hope to lead the chamber next year.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, has already unsuccessfully demanded a hearing this month on a “Culture of Corruption” surrounding the Cabinet secretary, including Zinke’s taxpayer-funded travels to political fundraisers and handling of an American Indian casino project in Connecticut.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who would be in line to chair the House Oversight Government Operations Subcommittee, listed a litany of possible starting points for probes by his panel, including a Montana real estate deal linked to the chairman of Halliburton that POLITICO first reported in June.

"Zinke is one the most ethically challenged members of the Cabinet and maybe one of Continue reading “Democrats promise to investigate Zinke if House flips”

Interior IG to scrutinize Zinke’s beer-making plans

WHITEFISH, Mont. — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made no secret of his dream of opening a microbrewery in his hometown of Whitefish.

Now, the department’s inspector general will be asking if he colluded to have the chairman of Halliburton, one of the leading companies with business before the department, build him one.

In Whitefish, brewers and city officials told POLITICO that Zinke has long sought to build a microbrewery of his own, a project that over six years led him to submit plans to the City Council, discuss the move with other business leaders and personally join in a review process to change local zoning laws to make them more hospitable to such a business.

Meanwhile, a planned development in Whitefish backed by David Lesar, the chairman of Halliburton — the nation’s largest oil services company, which would be one of the biggest winners in the Interior Department’s drive to Continue reading “Interior IG to scrutinize Zinke’s beer-making plans”

Zinke seeks to explain meeting with Halliburton chairman

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sought Wednesday to explain his role in a real estate deal involving a nonprofit he launched and developers backed by the chairman of Halliburton, a major energy company with extensive business before his department.

In his first public comments on the deal since it was first reported by POLITICO last week, Zinke acknowledged meeting with Halliburton Chairman Dave Lesar and other developers in his Interior Department office, but said his involvement was limited to providing them background on the nonprofit and the land it owned, which had been donated by BNSF Railway years earlier. The developers all live in or near Whitefish, Mont., the secretary’s hometown where the development would be built.

"And then Dave Lesar and his son, who is developing a piece of property next door, they don’t understand, when they had the property, actually, the Veterans Peace Park owns the lot next Continue reading “Zinke seeks to explain meeting with Halliburton chairman”

Public Citizen seeks probe of Zinke connection to Halliburton chairman

A nonprofit watchdog group is asking for a conflict of interest investigation into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s connection to a land deal with the chairman of Halliburton.

Public Citizen is asking the Interior Department’s top ethics officer to determine whether the arrangement violates any federal laws. A foundation Zinke launched to build a park in his hometown is aiding a proposed mixed-use real estate development backed by Halliburton Chairman David Lesar, as POLITICO reported Tuesday.

“The record of the direct involvement of the Zinke family and their Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation in a major real-estate project run by the chairman of Halliburton, and the business deal’s reported financial benefit to the Zinke family as well as to the Foundation, raises serious and numerous concerns of potential violations of the federal conflicts of interest code,” Public Citizen officials wrote in their letter Wednesday to Interior’s acting designated ethics official, Continue reading “Public Citizen seeks probe of Zinke connection to Halliburton chairman”

Zinke’s political ties to Virgin Islands improved Interior’s hurricane response, party boss says

The top GOP official in the U.S. Virgin Islands suggested his fundraising group’s "behind the scenes" relationship with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke helped influence the department’s response to last year’s hurricanes in the island territory.

John Canegata, the head of the Virgin Islands Republican Party, said he had direct access to Interior officials after the storm thanks to money his group raised for Zinke, whom he described as a "close friend." Zinke, a former congressman, has known Canegata since at least 2015, and the secretary was at a fundraiser for the VIGOP, as the group is known, during an official trip to the islands in his first month in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

Interior officials acknowledged reaching out to Canegata, who also works for a major rum distiller in the territory, although they said it was part of a wider effort to contact business leaders based in the Continue reading “Zinke’s political ties to Virgin Islands improved Interior’s hurricane response, party boss says”

Zinke’s political ties to Virgin Islands improved Interior’s hurricane response, party boss says

The top GOP official in the U.S. Virgin Islands suggested his fundraising group’s "behind the scenes" relationship with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke helped influence the department’s response to last year’s hurricanes in the island territory.

John Canegata, the head of the Virgin Islands Republican Party, said he had direct access to Interior officials after the storm thanks to money his group raised for Zinke, whom he described as a "close friend." Zinke, a former congressman, has known Canegata since at least 2015, and the secretary was at a fundraiser for the VIGOP, as the group is known, during an official trip to the islands in his first month in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

Interior officials acknowledged reaching out to Canegata, who also works for a major rum distiller in the territory, although they said it was part of a wider effort to contact business leaders based in the Continue reading “Zinke’s political ties to Virgin Islands improved Interior’s hurricane response, party boss says”

Zinke failed to disclose campaign ties to speech host, IG says

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke failed to disclose relevant information to ethics officials when he traveled to Las Vegas to speak to the Golden Knights hockey team last year, the department’s watchdog reported Monday — including the fact that one of his biggest campaign donors owned the team.

The report by Interior’s inspector general also raised questions about whether taxpayers should have been on the hook for a $12,000 charter flight that Zinke took after the speech from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana. Because Zinke’s speech did not even mention the Interior Department, the IG said it’s unlikely ethics officials would have OK’d it as official business.

"If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight," the report said. "Moreover, had ethics officials been Continue reading “Zinke failed to disclose campaign ties to speech host, IG says”

FEC increases scrutiny of Zinke’s former PAC

The Federal Election Commission is asking a leadership PAC previously affiliated with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to account for more than $600,000 of previously unreported contributions from the first six months of 2017.

For most of the period in question, the committee, SEAL PAC, was overseen by Vincent DeVito, who is now a top aide to Zinke at the Interior Department, and this is the second time federal regulators have looked into discrepancies during his tenure. Zinke launched SEAL PAC when he was elected to Congress in 2014 and disaffiliated himself from the group after being selected to join President Donald Trump’s Cabinet; DeVito was listed as the group’s treasurer until May, when he too joined the administration.

An Interior Department spokeswoman referred questions to the PAC. DeVito and SEAL PAC’s current treasurer did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

The $600,000 discrepancy is large enough that the Continue reading “FEC increases scrutiny of Zinke’s former PAC”

Zinke brought security team to vacation in Turkey and Greece, records show

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his wife took security detail on their vacation to Greece and Turkey last year, official documents show, in what one watchdog group said could be a "questionable" use of taxpayer resources.

Zinke has faced questions for months over his travel expenses and use of official resources, as have other members of President Donald Trump’s administration such as EPA leader Scott Pruitt, who was revealed Tuesday to have spent $30,000 on security for an official trip to Italy last year.

Unlike Pruitt, Zinke was not conducting government business during his two-week vacation, which included stops in Istanbul and the Greek Isles. The documents do not reveal exactly how many security personnel accompanied the couple, who paid for them, how much they cost or whether they traveled with Zinke and his wife, Lola, for the entire trip.

Interior provided U.S. Park Police officers for Zinke’s security Continue reading “Zinke brought security team to vacation in Turkey and Greece, records show”

Oil group to lobby president after stay at Trump hotel

The oil industry’s top lobby group is holding a two-day board meeting at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., before its executive committee goes to the White House to voice concerns about President Donald Trump’s proposed steel tariffs, sources familiar with the meetings told POLITICO.

The American Petroleum Institute’s annual board meeting that started Wednesday could involve up to 200 people representing various oil and gas companies — including the top executives of major oil companies — paying to stay at Trump’s hotel. It’s not known how much API is paying to the hotel, which is controlled by the Trump Organization, the family-owned business headed by the president’s son Donald Jr.

“This kind of thing was a fear a lot of people had when the president did not divest from his business,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for governance watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Continue reading “Oil group to lobby president after stay at Trump hotel”

Watchdog seeks probe into Zinke gun-club outing

A government watchdog group asked the Federal Election Commission on Thursday to investigate Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s appearance at Virgin Islands Fundraiser, and it plans to request that Interior’s Inspector General probe what it contends is his "pattern of violations" of ethics regulations.

The complaint letters from the Campaign Legal Center, which cite several POLITICO investigations as evidence, increase the scrutiny the former Montana congressman has faced over his habit of mixing official travel and political events in the Virgin Islands and the mainland. The Interior inspector general’s office is already conducting a review of Zinke’s travel and campaign finance practices, which it expects to release by April.

“In his short time in office, Secretary Zinke’s boundary-pushing — and, apparently, boundary-crossing — conduct has set a poor ethical example for the department’s staff,” the Campaign Legal Center wrote in a draft complaint it plans to send to the inspector general Continue reading “Watchdog seeks probe into Zinke gun-club outing”

Russian gas defies U.S. sanctions to reach New England

As the Trump administration slaps fresh sanctions on Russian energy companies, a cargo of Russian gas is set to power homes near Boston.

A tanker of liquefied natural gas from a Russian company on the Treasury Department’s sanctions list is scheduled to unload the fuel this weekend, making it the first shipment of gas from the country to ever reach the United States. It’s arriving just after the U.S. announced increased economic penalties Friday against Moscow-linked people and businesses because of Vladimir Putin’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Technically, the gas shipment does not appear to violate the prohibitions that the Obama administration imposed four years ago — it’s owned by a French energy trader and arriving on a French-owned vessel. But it shows the difficulty of enforcing sanctions involving energy cargoes, which can change hands frequently and are often mixed with fuel from multiple locations.

The Treasury Department expanded Continue reading “Russian gas defies U.S. sanctions to reach New England”