Former Trump official Zinke eyes Montana's new US House seat

·4 min read

BILLINGS, Mont. — Former Interior Secretary and Montana congressman Ryan Zinke filed paperwork Thursday signalling his interest in running for the second U.S. House seat that was awarded to the state earlier this week.

Zinke filed documents with the Federal Election Commission to organize the “Zinke for Congress” campaign committee.

Montana on Monday was awarded a second U.S. House seat starting in 2023, based on the state's population in the recent U.S. Census results. The district boundaries have yet to be set, but the election is slated for November 2022.

Zinke is a former U.S. Navy Seal who served in the Montana Senate from 2009 to 2013. He was Montana's lone U.S. House member from 2015 to 2017 before then-President Donald Trump appointed him to head the Department of Interior in early 2017.

During almost two years overseeing an agency responsible for managing 500 million acres of public lands, Zinke on behalf of Trump enacted broad rollbacks of restrictions on oil and gas drilling that were cheered by industry. But they brought a scathing backlash from environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers who accused him of putting corporate profits ahead of preservation.

Zinke resigned from the Interior post in December 2018 amid several investigations that he said were politically motivated and that “created an unfortunate distraction” in fulfilling the agency's mission.

The investigations included a probe into his decision to reject a casino in Connecticut sought by two tribes. That later led a grand jury investigation on whether Zinke had lied to the Department of Justice about the rejection, according to the Washington Post.

There is no public court record of any federal charges being filed against him in the case, and the full findings of the investigation have not been revealed. Several other investigations into Zinke concluded with no findings of wrongdoing.

Within months of leaving Trump's cabinet, Zinke moved to parlay his public service into a lucrative private career. He landed a more than $100,000-a-year position as consultant and board member at a Nevada mining company, U.S. Gold Corp., became managing director and consultant for a North Carolina-based private investment company, Artillery One, and joined Washington lobbying firm Turnberry Solutions.

A call to a number believed to be Zinke’s rang unanswered Thursday, and there was no voicemail set up. A call to the campaign committee’s treasurer, Lorna Kuney, was not immediately returned.

He continues to serve on U.S. Gold's board of directors, according to the company's website and regulatory filings. His status with Turnberry and Artillery One could not be immediately determined.

Zinke won his previous House elections in 2014 and 2016 by wide margins — part of a decade-long GOP surge in Montana capped by Democrats getting routed in the November 2020 elections.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is the only remaining Democrat to hold statewide office. The last Democrat elected to the House was Pat Williams in 1996.

Yet Democrats remain hopeful they can break through next year with the newly drawn House district. On Thursday, state party director Sandi Luckey criticized the Republican for “gutting public lands in order to reward his special interest allies." She said the scandals that erupted around him in the Trump administration left Zinke tarnished.

“We'll unequivocally have a better alternative,” she said.

Montana Republican Party Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt declined to comment on Zinke but said the GOP expects the open seat to be a battleground that could help decide the balance of power in the House, where Democrats have narrow control.

“The Montana Republican Party continues to focus on building on our momentum from last year’s historic election in which we won every statewide race," Kaltschmidt said.

Last year, Zinke closed his former congressional campaign account and gave nearly all the remaining cash, about $11,500, to the Great Northern Foundation, a charitable organization that Zinke started and his wife, Lola, was running,

The Great Northern Foundation was involved in a land deal in 2018 with the chairman of Halliburton, an energy services company that did business with Interior when Zinke was secretary. The foundation allowed Chairman David Lesar to use land for a commercial development adjacent to the park, prompting an inquiry by Interior's Office of Inspector General. ___

Brown reported from Billings.

Matthew Brown, The Associated Press