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Ryan Zinke knowingly misled federal investigators as interior secretary, inspector general finds

Zinke, who is running for Congress, made false statements during a probe of a Native American casino development, an internal government watchdog says.
Ryan Zinke
Ryan Zinke, then the secretary of the interior, speaks at Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington on Dec. 11, 2018. Cliff Owen / AP file

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his chief of staff knowingly made false statements to federal investigators while working under President Donald Trump, according to a report released Wednesday by the Department of Interior’s Inspector General.

Zinke, who left the Trump administration in January 2019 and is now running for Congress in Montana, was one of several of Trump’s early Cabinet secretaries who became embroiled in multiple ethics investigations. The report released Wednesday is the second time the department’s internal watchdog found that Zinke had made false statements while at Interior. 

During one of those investigations, about an Interior Department decision to block a request by two Native American tribes to open a casino in Connecticut, Zinke and his chief of staff “knowingly provided incorrect, incomplete, and misleading answers” to investigators from the department’s Office of the Inspector General, the report said. 

“We concluded that he provided a misleading portrayal of the basis for his decision,” the inspector general found, particularly over whether he was influenced by lobbyists and a U.S. senator on the matter.

While Zinke “repeatedly stated that he had not had conversations with anyone outside the agency” and relied on advice from the agency’s Office of the Solicitor in his decision, investigators documented extensive communications with “outside personnel, combined with the absence of information that anyone — counsel or otherwise — within the agency advised this course of action.” 

The report also found evidence that the chief of staff, who it did not name, was contacted by lobbyists for a large casino multiple times over the issue and knowingly made inaccurate statements about those interactions. 

Zinke’s attorneys disputed the finding that Zinke "lacked candor" in a written response published with the report, saying it was "wrong and without merit.” They also argued that, given his congressional campaign, release of the report should have been delayed until after the November election. 

The Inspector General’s Office said that it could not agree to delay the report's release and that the lawyers’ arguments did not change its findings. 

In a statement Wednesday, Zinke’s attorney Danny C. Onorato called the investigation “politically motivated” and the contents of the report and its timing a “political smear.” Onorato said the former secretary cooperated fully with the investigation four years ago and “repeatedly told the Inspector General that he was not subject to any influence in that matter because he lacked jurisdiction to act.”

The unnamed former chief of staff did not provide a written response to the report.

Zinke served a single term as Montana’s lone at-large representative in the U.S. House from 2015 to 2017, just before taking the Interior job. Recent redistricting created two House seats for the state for the first time in several decades. In June, he won the GOP primary for Montana’s new first congressional district in a close race. He is favored to win the general election.

The investigation

The ethics investigation began in 2018, when Connecticut’s two senators, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats, asked the inspector general to investigate claims that MGM Resorts International successfully lobbied the Interior Department to stop the development during the early months of the Trump administration. MGM was actively lobbying the Interior Department on tribal gaming at the time, according to Senate lobbying disclosures. MGM declined to comment.

Later that year, the White House appeared to take steps to replace the agency’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, with a political appointee from another agency, while the ethics probe and another examining a real estate arrangement in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, were ongoing. 

After NBC News and other outlets reported on an internal administration email announcing the replacement, the Interior Department issued a statement that the political appointee had not been hired by the agency. Kendall kept her job and continued the investigations until she retired the following year. Her office referred both to the Department of Justice.

DOJ ultimately declined to pursue criminal charges for lying to federal investigators in both cases, but the Inspector General’s Office found administrative violations for both. 

In a report about the Whitefish real estate deal issued in February, the inspector general issued several findings of ethical and other violations, including that Zinke “knowingly provided incorrect, incomplete, and misleading answers” to investigators. 

Wednesday’s report marks the culmination of the Connecticut casino investigation. During the course of the investigation the casino deal became the subject of litigation between the tribes, the state of Connecticut and the agency, leading the inspector general to focus solely on the secretary and chief of staff’s statements to investigators, rather than the deal itself. The litigation has since been resolved. 

The findings from both investigations are administrative violations, and as Zinke and his chief of staff are no longer agency employees, the current Interior secretary cannot take any action to reprimand them for their conduct, according to a current official.