Questions raised over Whitefish land deal with Zinke foundation

Posted at 7:22 PM, Jun 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-20 21:22:21-04

KALISPELL – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s family is involved in a land deal in Whitefish with the head of Houston-based energy services giant Halliburton that does business with the Interior Department, according to records and interviews Tuesday.

At issue is a piece of land 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.

The Zinkes’ dealings with chairman David Lesar, first reported by Politico, raise questions of the appearance of a conflict of interest between Secretary Zinke and Halliburton, critics say.

A charitable foundation created by Secretary 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.

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.

The Western Values Project, a Whitefish-based conservation group, is calling 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.

"So a group called Public Citizens did a request, requested the inspector general at the Department of the Interior which is an internal watchdog to that agency undertake an investigation of whether or not there is a potential conflict of interest given that the chairman of a large oil company is one of the backers of a development that is directly adjacent to this land,” said Chris Saeger Executive Director of the Western Values Project.

Secretary Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift told CBS News the land deal between the foundation and Lesar’s company "is not a departmental matter."

– information from CBS Houston included in this report.