Outgoing U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke defends legacy as he leaves

(Cliff Owen | AP file photo) In this Dec. 11, 2018 file photo, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke speaks at EPA headquarters in Washington. Newly-departed Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke says he's been truthful with investigators looking into numerous ethics complaints against him and has no knowledge of a report that he lied. Zinke's comments came after The Washington Post reported Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, that the Justice Department's public integrity section was examining whether he lied to investigators from Interior's office of inspector general.

Billings, Mont. • As former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exits Washington still chased by ethics investigations and criticism of his actions favoring industry, he told The Associated Press he’s lived up to the conservation ideals of Teddy Roosevelt and insisted the myriad allegations against him will be proven untrue.

The former Montana congressman also said he quit President Donald Trump's cabinet on his own terms, despite indications he was pressured by the White House to resign effective Wednesday.

During almost two years overseeing an agency responsible for managing 500 million acres of public lands, Zinke’s broad rollbacks of restrictions on oil and gas drilling 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.

He’s most famous in Utah for urging the president to shrink the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments, a decision that is now the subject of federal court cases.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Air Force One prepares to land at Salt Lake City International Airport for President Trump's visit to Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 4, 2017.

In his first interview since his resignation, Zinke said the changes he instituted meshed with Roosevelt's belief in balance between nature and industry. He added that they were needed in part to unfetter energy companies bound by unreasonable drilling curbs, largely imposed under former President Barack Obama.

"Teddy Roosevelt said conservation is as much development as it is preservation," Zinke said, a reference to a 1910 speech by the Republican president. "Our work returned the American conservation ethic to best science, best practices ... rather than an elitist view of non-management that lets nature take its course."

House Democrats plan to put Zinke's almost two-year tenure under the spotlight with oversight hearings beginning next month, said Adam Sarvana, a spokesman for Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the Democrat in line to lead the House Natural Resources Committee.

The hearings initially will focus on policy changes such as "giveaways" to the oil and gas industry under the leadership of Zinke, Sarvana said. He added that the hearings later could be expanded to include the various ethics investigations pending against Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and Trump loyalist.

The investigations have ranged from a probe into a land deal involving Zinke and the chairman of energy services giant Halliburton, to questions about his decision to reject a casino in Connecticut sought by two tribes.

During his interview with the AP, Zinke denied a Washington Post report that he may have lied to the Interior Department’s inspector general, which has reportedly prompted an examination of potential criminal violations by the U.S. Justice Department’s public integrity section.

Several other investigations into Zinke concluded with no findings of wrongdoing. However, in one case he was faulted by investigators for violating a department policy by allowing his wife to ride in government vehicles with him. That report also said the Interior Department spent more than $25,000 to provide security for the couple during a vacation to Turkey and Greece.

For the energy industry, Zinke brought relief from rules imposed under Obama that were meant to limit drilling in sensitive wildlife habitat, curb emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon monoxide and protect water supplies.

Despite the Democrats' newfound power in Washington after taking control of the House of Representatives, industry representatives said Zinke's impact will be lasting. That's because they involved agency regulations rather than Congressional action and came at the order of Trump, said Dan Naatz, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

"Although Secretary Zinke was effective at what he was doing, the policy really came from the president," Naatz said. "We don't expect any major changes."

Until Trump nominates and the Senate confirms a permanent replacement, Zinke's shoes will be filled on an acting basis by his deputy, David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry. Left-leaning groups that campaigned against Zinke already have turned their attention to Bernhardt with claims that his prior work leaves him compromised.

"David Bernhardt is too conflicted to serve him in any position, whether it's deputy, acting or full Interior secretary," said Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities. Weiss suggested pending investigations against Zinke are likely to continue and said the former secretary "can't make his trouble go away by simply walking away."

In his resignation letter, Zinke said he was compelled to stop down because the political attacks against him had created a distraction from Trump's drive to boost U.S. energy production.

He told the AP that the allegations against him fit into a "playbook" used by the administration's critics to stifle Trump's energy agenda, smear Zinke's name and undercut any future bid he might make for public office. Zinke said he won't run for Montana governor in 2020. But he did not rule out a future run for public office.

“I am certainly done with public service during this [election] cycle,” he said. “It would have to be a compelling reason to come back given the hostility, the threats levied against my family.”

In the weeks leading up to his resignation, the White House concluded Zinke was likely the Cabinet member most vulnerable to investigations led by newly empowered Democrats in Congress, according to an administration official not authorized to publicly discuss personnel matters who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In Zinke's telling of events, Trump remained fully supportive to the end and it was the secretary himself who made the decision to go.

“The president does not want me to leave. The president thinks it’s B.S., too. That’s his words,” Zinke said, referring to the allegations against him. “It was my decision based on what I thought was best for both the president and Interior, and I think the president reluctantly agreed.”