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Ex-interior secretary Zinke lied to investigators in casino case, watchdog finds


Former interior secretary Ryan Zinke, the leading contender to win a new House seat representing Montana this fall, lied to investigators several times about conversations he had with federal officials, lawmakers and lobbyists about a petition by two Indian tribes to operate a casino in New England, the department’s watchdog said in a report released Wednesday.

Investigators with Inspector General Mark Greenblatt’s office concluded that when questioned about his talks with Interior attorneys and others outside the department, Zinke and his then-chief of staff failed to comply with their “duty of candor” as public officials to tell the truth, the report said.

“We found that both Secretary Zinke and the [chief of staff] made statements that presented an inaccurate version of the circumstances in which [the Interior Department] made key decisions,” the report said. “As a result, we concluded that Secretary Zinke and the [chief of staff] did not comply with their duty of candor when questioned.”

Investigators found that Zinke and his chief of staff “made statements to OIG investigators with the overall intent to mislead them.”

A letter from Zinke’s attorney’s office included in the report pushed back on its substance, calling the report “distorted and misleading” and questioning the timing of its release. Zinke’s campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The watchdog began its investigation in 2017 to determine whether Zinke had been improperly influenced by Nevada Republicans and MGM Resorts International,which opposed the casino planned by competitors. The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes wanted to open a gambling facility in East Windsor, Conn., a request that required federal approval. Zinke neither granted nor denied the petition; instead, he sent it back to the tribes. His action became the subject of intense scrutiny at Interior and the White House during President Donald Trump’s first months in office.

Over the course of the investigation, the inspector general’s office shifted its focus from the decision in the casino case to the truthfulness of Zinke’s and his chief of staff’s statements.

According to the report, Zinke told investigators that he based his decision on the recommendation of attorneys in Interior’s solicitor’s office. But the report found the evidence contradicted this claim. Interior attorneys denied to investigators that they spoke with Zinke, gave him advice or approved his decision not to take a position on the petition. And people Zinke denied meeting with said they had regular contact with him to press him to deny the tribes’ application, according to emails and other documents obtained by investigators.

When told that his account was contradicted by the evidence, Zinke doubled down, the report said. He claimed that while he may have met socially with then-Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) about the casino project, he did not recall any conversation.

Investigators interviewed Zinke and his chief of staff twice in 2018 before Zinke announced his resignation as secretary in late that year under a cloud of ethics investigations that included the casino case.

In a harsh rebuttal included in the report’s appendix, Zinke blamed the inspector general’s office for releasing its findings so close to the November midterm elections. He argued it should be released after the election. Zinke is the Republican nominee for a new U.S. House seat representing western Montana, a race he is favored to win.

“Given the unnecessary delay in completing the report, we find the timing of the release of this report disturbing and improper,” an attorney for the former secretary wrote.

Zinke’s attorney also attacked the report on its substance, writing, “There was no basis to even conduct such a review of Secretary Zinke, but it is crystal clear that Secretary Zinke acted lawfully and ethically in carrying out his duties.”

But the Trump administration’s own Justice Department, after receiving a criminal referral from the inspector general in late 2018 for potential criminal violations in the casino matter, took 2½ years to review it. The delay effectively tied the inspector general’s hands in completing its administrative case, which the Biden administration reviewed for six months before formally declining the case. Wednesday’s report was issued a year later.

In early 2019, Zinke’s successor, David Bernhardt, approved the tribes’ petition to build an off-reservation casino in Connecticut, ending what was likely to be a long legal battle.

The inspector general’s report comes six months after the same office accused Zinke of also lying about his role in negotiations over a land deal in his hometown of Whitefish, Mont. That investigation found that Zinke had violated his duty of candor when he told a federal ethics official that his involvement in the deal was minimal. He had claimed his meeting with the project’s developers at Interior headquarters was “purely social.”

But email and text message exchanges obtained by the watchdog told a different story.

They showed that Zinke had communicated with the developers 64 times to discuss the project’s design, the use of his foundation’s land as a parking lot, and his interest in operating a brewery on the site. Investigators found that Zinke broke federal ethics rules repeatedly by continuing to represent his family’s foundation in the negotiations for nearly a year. This violated an ethics agreement in which he committed not to do any work on the foundation’s behalf after he joined the Trump administration.

The report also found that Zinke had misused his official position by directing some of his staff to arrange a meeting with the developers and print documents related to the project. Federal officials are generally prohibited from assigning their employees tasks related to their private business.

Though Greenblatt, who oversaw the investigation, was appointed by Trump, Zinke slammed the investigation as a “political hit job” by the Biden administration.

The Justice Department declined to bring charges related to that investigation.

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