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Former Interior Secretary Zinke talks private sector, ethics investigations

SNL Image

Then U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announces a ban on new mining claims in the mountains north of Yellowstone National Park on Oct. 8, 2018, in Emigrant, Mont. Zinke has left the Trump administration and is pursuing a variety of other projects, including a new board position with a small gold mining company.
Source: Associated Press

Former U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is pursuing opportunities in the private sector including joining the board of U.S. Gold Corp.

Zinke says his knowledge of regulatory matters will benefit the gold company but he dismisses concerns about conflicts of interest

He flagged cybersecurity, liquefied natural gas and ocean pollution as some of his other main areas of interest moving forward

SNL Image

Ryan Zinke, former Secretary of U.S. Department of the Interior, recently took on new responsibilities a board member at U.S. Gold Corp.
Source: Associated Press

Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recently joined the board of U.S. Gold Corp., a Nevada-based mining company to which Zinke will also provide consulting services. U.S. Gold is advancing exploration and development properties for gold and copper in Nevada and Wyoming.

The former Trump administration official pushed for U.S. "energy dominance" during his tenure and left the agency amid a host of investigations into his actions as Secretary. Now, Zinke — a former U.S. Navy SEAL — said he is using his education in geology and finance along with his experience as a Montana state senator and member of the U.S. House of Representatives to explore opportunities in business.

S&P Global Market Intelligence recently conducted a telephone interview with Zinke. The following is a transcript of that conversation edited for brevity and clarity.

S&P Global Market Intelligence: What have you been doing since you left the administration?

Ryan Zinke: Catching up. Thirty-one years my career stretches back — for 23 years with the SEALs, deployed a lot, and then as a state senator and congressman and secretary. It's a time in my life to catch up with my family and now I can pick and choose projects that I like. Projects that I like entail great leadership and people I like to work with. People that are red, white and blue great Americans and people that have projects that I enjoy.

As a senator, congressman and secretary, I don't think there's anyone more acquainted with the process of projects. I'm passionate about public land. I'm passionate about conservation. And what I've also seen is the best technology and best practices and making sure projects are done right. I'm excited about Gold Corp. because it's well-led, it has great geology and their balance sheet is good.

There were some unresolved investigations and ethical concerns at the Interior Department during your tenure. Is that the reason you left?

I went through 15 investigations. Fifteen. At the end of the day, the findings said the same: I followed all rules, policies, procedure and law. But, as you've seen, even with [new Interior Secretary David] Bernhardt, four days in office, two of which were a weekend, he's already under investigation.

Unfortunately, that's what the opposition now does. They throw false allegations with great fanfare and demand an investigation with media coverage. What isn't covered is six months later when the investigation is completed, and there's no wrongdoing.

Editor's Note: Some investigations conducted by the Interior Department's inspector general cleared Zinke or were closed due to a lack of cooperation, The New York Times reported in December 2018. But an Interior spokesperson confirmed April 24 that some investigations are still ongoing. At least two probes have been referred to the U.S. Department of Justice, according to news reports.

As you look back, how would you describe your legacy at the Interior Department? What are you most proud of?

The United States is the world leader in not only oil and gas production, but we're also reducing our carbon footprint in methane, CO2 and overall emissions while other nations' are increasing. I'm an enormous advocate for Made in America energy. I think environmentally, morally, it's correct.

From a former SEAL commander's perspective, and as a father, I don't want to see your children, my children ever have to fight on foreign shores for energy. I spent most of my adult life fighting on foreign shores. A lot of the wars have been about energy. And I would rather produce it at home and not be held hostage.

What isn't talked about is that [during my tenure as secretary] we secured the largest offshore wind lease in the history of our country. We had the largest investment in the budget for national parks in our nation's history. We took action to manage our public lands rather than simply let nature take its course with a catastrophic forest fire.

I was a strong advocate of the traditional, what I would call the American conservation ethic, which is best practices, best science, greatest good, longest term.

Transitioning to your new position at U.S. Gold Corp., there have been some concerns about a potential conflict of interest given your time at the Interior Department. How do you respond to that?

The U.S. Department of Interior issues guidance on ethics and law. I follow all rules, regulations, procedures and law as I always have.

As a former secretary, there are restrictions and prohibitions. I have a lifetime ban on foreign lobbying. I have a ban on lobbying the executive branch and using undue influence and there is a prohibition on directly coordinating, corresponding and influencing Department of Interior on those issues that I was personally involved in.

It's all in federal law and there is no conflict of interest. Once again, it's a fake, false allegation without substance.

How do you think your experiences in government will benefit U.S. Gold Corp.? What are some issues about the about the regulatory process that some companies might not understand?

How important it is to make sure you have local support. The permitting process should not skip a step. Mitigation of any environmental impacts needs to be looked at closely. You need to have a great team of people together. If there are cultural resources, that should be negotiated and talked about.

I'm from Montana, which is historically a strong mining state. I've seen the damage from turn-of-the-century mines. When I was a congressman, I was exposed to how many mines still require reclamation, the lingering effects of mining techniques from the past. Anything with my name associated with, I want to make sure that we use cutting edge technology techniques.

Gold Corp. has the leadership to do that and they have a strong balance sheet. I'm very bullish.

SNL Image

Zinke walks through the Big Cypress National Preserve in Ochopee, Fla., in October 2017 as part of a three-day Florida tour to assess hurricane damage and Everglades restoration efforts.
Source: Associated Press

Are there any other ventures you're currently interested in right now?

Areas of tremendous growth, [such as] cybersecurity. Historically, cybersecurity has been a nation state against nation state looking for state secrets and then it evolved to consumer fraud with ATMs. Now it's in the financial markets, it's extortion. The U.S. and many, many of the Western countries are vulnerable on our critical infrastructure. So I think securing that critical infrastructure, so it's not subject to cyberattack, I think is important. I enjoy that part of it.

Liquefied natural gas — I just think the upside of the LNG capability of this country, to be a supplier of LNG is important for us and to keep energy costs low. I pick and choose the projects that I really enjoy. And my decision matrix is based on the leadership team, the mission.

I would also like to get involved with combating plastics in the ocean. You know, there's an 800-mile island — made in China — and the U.S. is concerned about straws when we should be internationally concerned about an 800-mile island of floating debris made in China.

That's a threat to a healthy environment for us all. I would like to get involved in that and am looking for the right venue.

When you left Interior you said you didn't want to be a distraction to the administration and commented that you are now more free to pivot to interesting projects. Was your time at the department worth it?

I'm enjoying the transition. I'm enjoying spending more time with my family. Frankly, that is the biggest enjoyment.

I enjoyed my time at the Interior and I enjoyed working with the president. What I didn't enjoy was the hostility and the anger and the willingness to do anything, I mean anything, to destroy this presidency. To me there were no lines of decency, honesty and integrity. They are blurred in Washington, D.C.

The president wanted me to stay. But I thought at the end of the day, after two years, the major changes at the Interior had been done and it was time for me to resign and pursue other interests. I'm happy with the decision.

Is there anything else you would like the public to know about either the current administration or your future plans?

We live in a great country because we've earned it. And we continue to earn it every day. I wish more Americans would truly think red, white and blue rather than a single position.

And you know, as a former military commander, I never asked the political affiliation of my teammate next to me. And as a congressman, I was always willing to work with everybody for common good. It's became difficult in D.C. with the amount of hostility and anger.

At my house in Washington, D.C., there were signs all around the neighborhood that were anti-Zinke just to intimidate me. I had neighbors take pictures of my moving van and had camera crews show up as my son and I are moving the Ryder truck. I mean, that's harassment.

Other secretaries before me — and I talked to many of them — had very different experiences. Even [Obama-appointed Interior Secretary] Sally Jewell, you know, we remain friends. I don't agree with her on every issue, but it was never hostile between myself and Sally Jewell. Today, it's much different.

What do you think caused the polarization to occur in such a quick time frame between the current administration and the past administration?

Politically, there are people that just hate the president. The resistance, at all costs, has polarized. The president is unlike any president before. I enjoyed working with him because he was very businesslike. You had to perform. I had an enormous latitude for the direction that Interior was going. When the president had a question, believe me, he would call. You know, he wasn't shy, even to a former SEAL commander.

What do you think is the solution? Can the sides be brought back together under Trump or will tension will remain until someone else wins an election?

I have greater faith in America. I think they're getting tired of the idea of just fighting all the time about everything. So you know, we live in a great country, I have greater faith in the American spirit, and the American people to recognize what it is. You vote, you take change by getting out and you vote and you participate in a democracy.