Ryan Zinke: Ethical Superfund Site


Secretary of the Interior and cowboy wannabe Ryan Zinke, wearing a black cowboy hat, rides a horse to his first day on the job. Riding on an English saddle.

This post was written pre-surgery.

Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, the very worst environmentally contaminated sites are designated for cleanup by a scoring system called the Hazard Ranking System. If they are bad enough, they get on the National Priorities List – a euphemism if WC has ever heard one – and, eventually, they get “remediated” – another euphemism.

It’s an imperfect system, but CERCLA is a start at getting some of the worst environmental catastrophes attended to.

America needs something similar for ethics and politicians. We need a way to “score” their ethics or lack thereof, so that a plan of remediation to address those ethical lapses can be developed.

WC will take as a case study in how this might work: the disgraced former Secretary of the Interior in the Trump Administration and current Congressional candidate, Ryan Zinke.

Now you might say, with fair accuracy, that Ryan Zinke has no more ethics than a rabid skunk. But that’s not fair to skunks, rabid or otherwise, and, besides, we need something that can be generalized. Let’s start with the Hazard Ranking System.

The Environmental Superfund’s Hazard Ranking System examines three categories of factors:

  • the likelihood that a site has released or has the potential to release hazardous substances into the environment;
  • the characteristics of the waste (e.g. toxicity and waste quantity); and
  • whether people or sensitive environments (targets) will be affected by the release.

If we convert those environmental considerations to roughly parallel ethical considerations, a Ethical Hazard Ranking System, as it were, we might get something like this:

  • the likelihood that that the politician has acted unethically in the past or has the potential to act unethically in an important political environment in the future;
  • the characteristics of the unethical conduct (e.g. self-serving, criminality and damage to our political system); and
  • people or sensitive issues (targets) likely to be affected by the unethical conduct.

With that Ethical Hazard Ranking System in mind, let’s examine the last five years of conduct by Ryan Zinke.

The Proposed Casino in East Windsor, Conn.

In 2017, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan American Indian tribes petitioned Interior Secretary Zinke to open a casino in East Windsor, Connecticut. Zinke met with the groups opposing the petition, rejected it, and then lied to the Inspector General about it. And whined about the Inspector General’s report and referral to the Department of Justice, claiming the report and the delay in issuing it was a political move. But the delay was because the Trump DOJ didn’t act on the Inspector General’s report, which Zinke knew full well. So, unethical conduct, lied about it to cover his ass, and complained release of the report was damaging his political campaign. That nails all three categories of ethical factors in the Ethical Hazard Scoring System.

The Whitefish, Montana Property Negotiations

Zinke represented his family foundation in negotiations over a property purchase in Whitefish, Montana for nearly a year, investigators found, even after committing to federal officials that he would resign from the foundation and would not do any work on its behalf after he joined the Trump administration. He claimed his involvement was minimal. The Inspector General disagreed, finding there were email and text message exchanges that show he communicated with the developers 64 times between August 2017 and July 2018 to discuss the project’s design, the use of his foundation’s land as a parking lot, and his interest in operating a brewery on the site. And spent a whole day with the developers, squiring them around Washington. D.C. Zinke refused an Inspector General interview, refused to answer questions and denied everything. In a statement, the Zinke campaign called the investigation a “Biden Administration led report” that “published false information, and was shared with the press as a political hit job.” Once again, Zinke has nailed all three of the Ethical Hazard Ranking Systems categories of unethical behavior: patently unethical, acting in his own self interest and lying about it.

Those are just two of the fifteen investigations of Zinke’s ethics. Or lack thereof.1

WC thinks it’s perfectly fair to say that Zinke qualifies as an ethical Superfund site. A Superfund site might have nasty chemicals oozing about; Zinke has sleazy ethics dripping off of him.2

Which takes WC to the matter of remediation of the problem. Zinke is a candidate for the U.S. House in Montana’s newly minted 1st District. Even though his wife seems to be a resident of California. Remediation might start by Montanans recognizing that the only person Ryan Zinke is going to represent in the state of Montana is Ryan Zinke. If Montana and Montanans benefit from his election, it will be collateral fallout from Ryan Zinke taking care of Ryan Zinke. A second step in remediation would be for the Department of Justice to change its collective mind and conclude that Zinke’s conduct warrants criminal prosecution. After all, Zinke claims that it’s all politically motivated.

You may have your own ideas of remediation of the ethical Superfund site that is Ryan Zinke. But you can’t really argue about the conclusion he’s a poster child for bad ethics.


1 Another example: Joel Clement, an EPA scientist and policy expert that WC has met, was reassigned by Zinke to an accounting position for which he has no experience after publicly disclosing how Zinke’s denial of anthropogenic climate change hurt Alaska Native communities. Clement quit and became a whistleblower.
2 Sure, WC’s proposal needs a formal scoring system. Not all ethical “lapses” are equal. But Zinke’s conduct is so egregious he presents an easy case.

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