Former Home Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to investigators in casino case, watchdog says

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

Investigators from Inspector General Mark Greenblatt’s office concluded that when asked about his interviews with interior prosecutors and others outside the department, Zinke and his then-chief of staff failed to comply. their “duty of candor” as public servants to tell the truth, the report said.

“We found that 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 have concluded that Secretary Zinke and the [chief of staff] failed to live up to their duty of candor when questioned.

Investigators found that Zinke and his chief of staff “made statements to OIG investigators with the general 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, a competitor that opposed the planned casino. The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes wanted to open a gambling establishment in East Windsor, Connecticut, a request that required federal approval. Zinke neither granted nor denied the petition; instead, he sent it back to the tribes. His action came under intense scrutiny at the Interior and the White House during President Donald Trump’s first months in office.

During the investigation, the Inspector General’s office shifted its focus from the decision in the casino case to the veracity of statements by Zinke and his chief of staff.

According to the report, Zinke told investigators he based his decision on the recommendation of lawyers from the Home Office Notary. But the report found evidence contradicted that claim. Inside attorneys denied to investigators that they had spoken with Zinke, given him advice or approved of his decision not to take a position on the motion. And the people Zinke denied meeting with said they had regular contact with him urging him to deny the tribes’ request, according to emails and other documents obtained by investigators.

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

Investigators interviewed Zinke and his chief of staff twice in 2018 before Zinke resigned as secretary at the end of that year under a cloud of ethics inquiries that included the casino case.

In a stern 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 that it should be released after the election. Zinke is the Republican nominee in the race for a new U.S. House seat representing western Montana, a seat 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 inappropriate,” a lawyer for the former secretary wrote.

Zinke’s attorney also attacked the report on its substance, writing, “There was no reason even for such a review of Secretary Zinke, but it is crystal clear that Secretary Zinke acted legally and ethically in the performance of 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 offenses in the casino case, took 2.5 years to review it. The delay effectively tied the inspector general’s hands in completing his administrative case, which the Biden administration reviewed for six months before formally dismissing the case. Wednesday’s report was released 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 negotiating a land deal in his hometown of Whitefish, Mt. This investigation found that Zinke violated his duty of candor when he told a federal ethics official that his involvement in the deal was only minimal. He had claimed that his meeting with the developers of the project at the headquarters of the Interior was “purely social”.

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

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

The report also revealed that Zinke abused his official position by asking some of his collaborators to set up a meeting with the developers and print documents related to the project. Federal public servants are generally prohibited from entrusting their employees with tasks related to their private business.

Although Greenblatt, who oversaw the investigation, was appointed by Trump, Zinke called the investigation a “political stunt” by the Biden administration.

The Department of Justice declined to lay charges related to this investigation.

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