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Grijalva says Interior Sec. must resign; Zinke calls Tucson Dem a drunk

Citing "multiple scandals," U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva called on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to resign Friday. The Trump administration official responded by tweeting that "it's hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle."

The Tucson Democrat, the incoming chair of the House Natural Resources Committee who's pledged to investigate Zinke and his department further, published an op-ed in USA Today:

Ryan Zinke needs to resign immediately as Secretary of the Interior.

I take no pleasure in calling for this step, and I have resisted it even as questions have grown about Mr. Zinke’s ethical and managerial failings. Unfortunately, his conduct in office and President Donald Trump’s neglect in setting ethical standards for his own cabinet have made it unavoidable.

Grijalva describe Zinke as "embroiled in scandals and nepotism," and said congressional "scrutiny will only intensify if I'm chairman."

Zinke then tweeted out an image of his response, saying that "This is coming from a man who used nearly $50,000 in tax dollars as hush money to cover up his drunken and hostile behavior. He should resign and pay back the taxpayer for the hush money and the tens of thousands of dollars he forced my department to spend investigating unfounded allegations."

When the Democrats take control of the House in January, Grijalva will be one of the committee chairs with new-found powers to subpoena documents and testimony from administration officials.

Grijalva, long a critic of Zinke’s and of his management of the Interior Department, said in the op-ed that the “sheer scope of his (Zinke’s) well-documented scandals” demand that the secretary resign.

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Grijalva noted that there have been 17 publicly reported probes of Zinke and his department, including an inspector general investigation that was recently referred to the Justice Department.

He wrote:

While the secretary continues to project confidence, questions have grown since the election about his future plans, and the White House reportedly fears that he would be unable to withstand scrutiny on Capitol Hill. Those fears are justified. Mr. Zinke has never even tried to offer an explanation for the sheer scope of his well-documented scandals.

'Bottom of the bottle'

Zinke's tweet was a reference to a 2015 settlement with a top Democratic staffer on the Natural Resources Committee, who was paid $48,000 after reportedly complaining of a hostile working environment. The conservative Washington Times wrote that a woman threatened to sue the congressman, "claiming the Arizona Democrat was frequently drunk and created a hostile workplace environment."

No lawsuit or formal allegations were pursued by the woman against Grijalva. The staffer, who had worked for the committee for years, spent less than two months as the Democratic staff chief on Natural Resources, a TucsonSentinel.com review of documents showed.

Grijalva characterized the expenditure as a "severance package," and declined to comment further, citing a non-disclosure agreement — but said he would waive that NDA if the former staffer agreed. The woman, whose identity was determined independently in TucsonSentinel.com's investigation, has refused to comment and the NDA remains in force.

Grijalva tweeted back Friday morning that "The allegations against Secretary Zinke are credible and serious. Instead of addressing the substantive issues raised in this morning’s op-ed, he's resorting to personal attacks."

"The American people know who I'm here to serve, and they know in whose interests I'm acting. They don't know the same about Secretary Zinke," Grijalva said in a statement provided by his office.

The rightwing newspaper that first reported the settlement made several references to payoffs in sexual harassment cases, an implication that Grijalva refuted.

The congressman said that "at no time was any allegation of sexual harassment made, and no sexual harassment occurred."

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"Under the terms of the agreement, had there been an allegation of sexual harassment, the employee would have been free to report it," Grijalva said last November. "Regrettably, for me to provide any further details on this matter would violate the agreement."

Neither the Times nor Grijalva named the staffer in question, but an extensive TucsonSentinel.com review of congressional payroll records demonstrates that only one woman fits the reported timeline and payments.

FEC complaint alleged embezzlement by campaign staffers

That staffer later evidently filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, alleging his campaign staffers had embezzled from the Democrat's political coffers.

In December 2015, months after her final congressional paycheck, she filed a complaint with the FEC, claiming that she had been told that Grijalva's chief of staff and her husband "were engaged in embezzlement of funds from A Whole Lot of People for Grijalva," the congressman's campaign committee.

She wrote that she had been informed by a former fundraiser and a staffer for Grijalva the previous January that "campaign cash and checks had gone missing."

The FEC reviewed the case, and the alleged embezzlers, Amy Emerick-Clerkin and Peter Clerkin, as well as the claimed sources, Laura O'Neill Kaumo and Christopher Kaumo, made sworn statements that there were no missing funds and that the latter couple had not discussed any possible financial irregularities with the staffer.

"There is no reason to believe" the allegations, the FEC's general counsel wrote, and the file was closed.

Congressional settlements common but quiet

Members of Congress have long been using drawn-out payments to make settlements with former employees fly under the radar. The Office of Compliance has paid $17.2 million over the last 20 years in more than 260 such deals, covering harassment claims and workplace grievances, the Washington Post reported.

The settlement in Grijalva's case was not made with the Office of Compliance, but instead with the House Employment Counsel. The payments to the staffer were made as if she were an employee of the Republican majority staff on the committee.

Arizona Republicans seized on the story last year to challenge Grijalva, who's widely known as not being averse to a glass or three of white wine (as journalists from TucsonSentinel.com can attest, but only after working hours).

On Friday, Bruce Ash — Arizona's member of the Republican National Committee — posted on Facebook that "Zinke is right. I've personally seen the Mustache drunk several times in public." Ash didn't provide any details.

Zinke’s attack was leveled at a man who is expected to become chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee next year, the panel with direct oversight of the Interior Department.

Even before the tweeted response, Grijalva vowed the committee would be taking a closer look at Zinke and his department once Democrats take over the House next year.

“Should I chair the committee in January, as I hope to do, those questions will only intensify as part of my and my colleagues’ legitimate oversight duties,” Grijalva wrote.

The Interior Department’s inspector general opened an investigation a month ago into Zinke’s land dealings in his home state of Montana – what Grijalva said was at least 17th investigation into Zinke since he was named secretary last year.

The probe focuses on whether Zinke used his position as secretary to increase the value of land his family owns in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, by dealing with local developers and officials at Halliburton, an oil contractor.

Other investigations of Zinke have looked into whether he ordered climate change reports censored by the department, reports that the agency would spend $139,000 on three set of office doors and whether he was inappropriately promoting Make America Great Again socks.

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Zinke has also been accused of using taxpayer dollars to fund trips on private jets, taking inappropriate amounts of leave and providing government perks to his wife.

The negative publicity may have attracted the attention of the White House, with published reports indicating that Zinke is among a hanful of Cabinet secretaries the president is eyeing for replacement.

In his editorial, Grijalva said Zinke has not answered to any of the scandals, and “this silence is insulting to the American people.” He said stepping down to allow for some damage control is the least Zinke could do.

Grijalva also criticized Zinke’s management of the department, which has included the downsizing of national monuments like Bears Ears and plans to cut “thousands” of permanent positions, among other changes.

Grijlava said a resignation would not get rid of the philosophy that permeates the department, but he still thinks it is important for the Natural Resources Committee to take a stand.

“This is, I think, an alert to the Interior that we’re going to hold them accountable regardless,” Grijalva said late Friday morning. “We’re going to question that philosophy.”

When contacted for comment, an Interior spokeswoman said only that “The Secretary’s statement speaks for itself.”

Other members of Congress rushed to Grijalva’s defense, including Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York, who joined in the call for Zinke’s resignation.

Cronkite News reporter Alexis Egeland contributed to this story.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva speaking on election night, Nov. 6, 2018.