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Mining project on federal lands hires former Interior head

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has a new job: a more than $100,000-a-year post with a gold-mining firm that's pursuing project approvals involving the federal agency that Zinke left fewer than four months ago.

Zinke told The Associated Press on Tuesday that his work for Nevada-based U.S. Gold Corp., which focuses on mining exploration and development, would not constitute lobbying. But that company's CEO cited Zinke's "excellent relationship" with the Bureau of Land Management and the Interior Department in explaining his hiring.

"We're excited to have Secretary Zinke help move us forward" on two pending mining projects, in Nevada and Wyoming, Edward Karr, head of U.S. Gold Corp., said by phone. Karr said one of the mining projects is on land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which is under the Interior Department.

A 2017 executive order by President Donald Trump says executive-branch appointees cannot lobby their former agency for at least five years after leaving their government post. Separately, criminal statutes impose one and two-year bans on various kinds of communications between senior federal officials and their former agency, said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit ethics-watchdog.

Zinke, who announced his resignation from Interior in December amid ethics investigations, said Tuesday that his new mining job does not violate any prohibitions on post-administration lobbying. "I don't lobby," Zinke said. "I just follow the law, so I don't talk to anybody on the executive side or influence" anyone.

Karr says Zinke will receive a total of $114,000 a year in cash and stock as a board member and under a one-year consulting contract. The company's filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission says Zinke will also receive up to $120,000 a year in expenses.

Zinke said his time in public office would be an asset at the mining company and in "making sure the environmental mitigation is done correctly." "I understand the process," he said. "There's very few former state senators, congressmen and secretaries that know more about the process than I do," said Zinke, who served in the Montana legislature and the U.S. House before being appointed to lead Interior.

The purpose of federal lobbying freezes by recently departed senior officials is "to make sure there there's a cooling-off period ... so the former agency is not subject to the influence of their former head," Canter said.

Given the restrictions, she said Karr's comment on Zinke's good relationship with Interior "just raises questions about what he meant." Zinke has a degree in geology from the University of Oregon. He never worked professionally in the field, instead becoming a U.S. Navy SEAL. But he said his education and political involvement in Montana mining projects would be useful at U.S. Gold Corp. 

__ Brown reported from Billings, Montana.

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