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What the Devil won't tell you

Grijalva, Dems have no choice but to investigate Trump admin's shenanigans

What’s a congressman to do? To avoid witch hunts, some folks should quit flying around on broomsticks.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva has called on U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to resign over allegations of self-dealing. His opinion of Zinke matters more than most others in Congress, as he's the incoming chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.

Zinke defiantly called Grijalva a drunk, tweeting,"it's hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle."

Yeah, how exculpatory.

That’s a fairly cheeky if ironic response for a man whose love of handcrafted beer and long quest to build himself a brew pub in Whitefish, Mont., has bought himself a a big sky full of trouble.

Grijalva will soon run the House Committee on Natural Resources, giving him the authority to fire off subpoenas to the Interior Department to call Zinke to account. Donald Trump and his administration don't give a damn how things look, and operate without guard rails. So they leave so much sitting there for a co-equal branch to poke loose with a subpoena that it’s actually a potential problem for the would-be investigators.

The Grijalva-Zinke spat is a small example of the question faced by Democrats as they suddenly have oversight power: Should legislative oversight equal executive shadiness, or does the the sheer scale of executive shadiness excuse it from accountability?

If I run 94 lights on a high-speed chase fleeing from Tucson police interceptors, are the cops over-reaching writing me 94 tickets for light-running? That’s the wager President Trump has made.

Democrats are already gripping their pearls at the prospect of investigating each and every case of potential self-dealing and executive over-reach? I tend to put it this way: How many cases should there be?

I’m no shrinking violet on this point. The best presidents often throw the most weight around. I get the good government argument. Grijalva should spend time worrying about issues facing Tucsonans, including protections for Saguaro National Park and Ironwood Forest National Monument, which Zinke oversees as Interior Secretary. Should Grijalva focus on the $531 million in infrastructure needs in Arizona national parks or chase Zinke down holes or bottles?

What’s Grijalva to do when BrewPubGate walks in the door, sits down and orders a pale ale scandal? I don't remember Republicans coming down with a case of the vapors when they had a chance to pounce on the Benghazi raid or Hillary Clinton's emails.

The Zinke case just begs for a look and see. 

Let's break it down

Politico broke the story over the summer about Zinke, the oil guy and the microbrewery.

Zinke wanted to build himself a microbrewery and found a spot to do it. So he approached the city of Whitefish back in December 2012 with a proposal to convert his childhood home into a bed and breakfast while turning a parcel across the street into a microbrewery. Neighbors complained (as they always do, everywhere) about a commercial project in a residential area creating too much traffic and noise.

Zinke and the city tried to ease neighbors' concerns to little effect.

'Round about the same time, Zinke was elected to the Montana state legislature and then to Congress. 

Eventually, the Whitefish city council agreed to allow a mixed-use development for the site but the vote wasn't specific to the development. Zinke was no longer actively seeking to build the project himself. Someone else would have to do that.

Curious Dog Face

So we have a plan to have a plan. The parcel needs a development plan with blueprints tied to actual construction.

That’s where we switch to the Zinke side of story, as penned by his hometown paper, the Flathead Beacon (if there’s a cooler name for a publication, I’m not sure what it would be).

Scott Malmquist, a northern Montana developer, submitted plans for a mixed-use development on the site that would result in brick and mortar. As part of the proposal, Malmquist's project included a provision to use for a parking lot land owned by a foundation Zinke started years before. 

Zinke's foundation was to build a 14-acre Peace Park and sled hill on vacant land near the project. Zinke is no longer involved with the park. It's fine, see. His wife now runs its foundation board, but that's neither here nor there, right?

Malmquist had a business partner named David Lesar, chairman and CEO of Halliburton. Now the Natural Resources Committee pops to attention wearing “curious dog face” and huffs “bruuh?” with a cocked ear.

From the Montana paper:

“In an interview with the Beacon, Malmquist said his relationship with Lesar dates back nearly two decades, to when he built the Halliburton executive’s home near Lion Mountain. Since then, Lesar has invested in several development projects led by Malmquist. The developer dispelled any narrative that his or Lesar’s financial stake in the project and their negotiations with Zinke were unscrupulous or intended to curry favors for Halliburton, nor did Zinke express any interest in the project’s potential to boost his property values or lead to future business investments, according to Malmquist. The property has long been eyed for development.

“We have a shared-use agreement to build a parking lot that we are paying for and it benefits both the peace park and our project. That is a very common development scheme,” Malmquist said. “There’s no money exchanged and no financial favors. Halliburton has never, ever come up in the discussions ever.”

Malmquist, who calls himself a lifelong Democrat, later told the Beacon:

“It is a good project that went through all the right channels. It just happens to be that Dave Lesar is the former CEO of Halliburton and Ryan Zinke is the peace park guy. That is the extent of it. There’s no corruption.”

A couple things come to mind.

Zinke’s job title is a bit more expansive than “the Peace Park Guy,” unless we buy the idea that Zinke is just moonlighting as the secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, overseeing three-quarters of the nation’s public lands, 70,000 employees and a budget of $20 billion.

Second, Halliburton makes drilling equipment. Should, oh, I don’t know, someone with the power to approve or deny hydraulic fracturing on federal land agree to grant more fracking, Halliburton stands to make bundles of cash.

It doesn't matter if the chairman of Halliburton and the secretary of interior refer to each other as such. If they are doing an outside business deal together, they know who one another are.

Maybe nothing

Substantively, there may not be any great crime to sleuth out here.

I could see how Malmquist could be completely correct from his point of view. He’s a developer, doing a project he’s proud of, so huzzah to that. He got money from the rich guy whose house he built and some help from the Peace Park guy. 

In local Whitefish politics, this might just be a bunch of dudes solving some problems. National implications, schmational smimplications. There’s work to be done.

It's just Malmquist could have given a more decisive quote to Politico regarding Zinke's future ownership of the brew pub.

“If and when we get to that point, Ryan Zinke, or anyone else that is interested, can purchase a parcel of property, properly located on the development by use and per zoning, and develop a project that is permitted from the standpoint of zoning designations that determine the permitted uses on the development parcel, as well as following the [covenants, conditions, and restrictions] that are yet to be developed for the property,” Malmquist said in an email.

Oh, c'mon! I was trying to help you guys out. Throw me a freaking bone! He's saying the head of Halliburton may or may not be building a project to help the Interior secretary feather his nest and we're supposed to look the other way?

Zinke has since told Politico: “At this point in my life, I am more interested in sampling hand-crafted beers rather than making them.”

At this point in my life, huh? Please elaborate. Grijalva will give you ample opportunity.

It's all B.S.

That Zinke would just crack wise about Grijalva’s history with wine shows he could give a rat’s ass about what his brew pub problems look like.

Does anyone think Lesar has to wait in line behind miners in North Carolina and spelunkers in Maine to talk to the Interior secretary?

Zinke could have told Grijalva: “I welcome a thorough review of my actions and will fully cooperate with any House committee because I have nothing to hide.” Better yet, the moment he became Interior secretary with Halliburton business pending on his desk, he could have told Lesar, "Dave, I can't be involved anymore. Clearly, it looks bad." 

Instead he tweeted out a verbal towel-smack because it’s all bullshit, in his point of view. Everyone’s corrupt. Our institutions are irredeemable. So no one is truly accountable. That means the powerful should be free to do whatever they want, unchecked. It's a great way to get people to hate the system. The party of small government could scarcely help their cause more than to get the whole world to believe the act of governance is corrupt by definition.

So oversight is an undo burden.

Meanwhile, when the rest of us blow off a ticket for doing 44 in a 35, we can end up in jail.

From one sweetheart to another

I'm sorry, the congressman from Tucson has no choice but to look into Zinke because Zinke had plenty of chances to make different choices to avoid conflicts of interest. This deal couldn't look any more "sweetheart" if it came with laden chocolates, flowers and jewelry.

Zinke has also been embroiled in controversies over political action committees that oddly don't spend money on political action, along with charging taxpayers for a charter flight to speak to the Las Vegas Golden Knights, owned by Whitefish resident Bill Foley. 

Whitefish being the town with the energy company  — Whitefish Energy — that got a bid to rebuild Puerto Rico's power grid after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. So, you would be forgiven for wondering what in God's name is up with Whitefish. I'm thinking we need to add a new adjective to the language: Whitefishy (Maybe he's not on the take but he's acting awful whitefishy).

Reporters often refuse to vote to avoid appearing to have a conflict of interest. A journalist in Flagstaff was stuck in all-day economic forum and refused to take so much as a potato ship as her blood sugar tanked. She said it would be "graft."

Merely the appearance of favoritism is enough to guide the press to eschew compromising situations.

Yet Zinke says a person would have to be drunk to see his back-room behavior as suspect.

If Zinke believes that nothing about his dealings looks fishy, then maybe he's sampling craft beer from the bottom end of a funnel.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things the Devil won’t.


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have your say   

1 comment on this story

1
9 comments
Dec 7, 2018, 10:03 pm
-0 +1

Of course Grijalva should investigate this guy who is as apt for his job as other Trump choices have been. And its great news that he will soon be in a position to do so. But he should also investigate taking care of his drinking problem, which only hobbles the incredibly good work he could be doing. I get it, this article is not about our esteemed Rep, but its pretty well known locally and nationally that such a problem exists. He would be far more effective without it. And I say that with much compassion towards people with that problem.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on horseback during a tour of the U.S.-Mexico border near Sasabe, Arizona, March 2018.