Inspector General: Zinke misled federal investigators
(Daily Montanan) Former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke purposefully misled the department’s Inspector General’s Office about his interactions with corporate casino representatives in a federal probe of his decision in a tribal casino deal in Connecticut, according to a report filed Wednesday.
The report also said Zinke, the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Montana’s new western district, wasn’t forthcoming about his conversations with a U.S. senator who argued the DOI might set a bad precedent if it approved a tribal casino on non-tribal lands.
“We found that both Secretary Zinke and the COS (chief of staff) made statements that presented an inaccurate version of the circumstances in which the DOI made key decisions,” the report said.
The U.S. Department of Justice received the report in 2018 and declined to prosecute the matter in summer 2021, the report said.
In a statement provided by the Zinke campaign, attorney Danny Onorato pushed back against the findings, as Zinke himself has done in response to questions about earlier IG investigations. The statement said Zinke “cooperated fully” in the “politically motivated” probe.
“Secretary Zinke repeatedly told the Inspector General that he was not subject to any influence in that matter because he lacked jurisdiction to act on the application (by the tribes),” said the statement from Onorato, whose legal specialty includes white collar criminal defense and government investigations. “That should have ended the inquiry. Instead, on the eve of an election, the IG has released a misleading and inaccurate report that suggested Secretary Zinke lacked candor in his interview with IG agents. That is wrong.”
In the report, investigators reviewed the decision by the Interior Department under Zinke related to a plan by two Native American tribes to operate a casino in Connecticut over objections from another casino company.
The report said investigators did not address the propriety of Zinke’s decision related to the tribal casino or whether the decision was influenced by lobbyists in light of subsequent action by the DOI and litigation.
Rather, it said the probe reviewed whether he was candid with OIG investigators about his involvement, as was his federal duty as Secretary.
The report said he misled them with incomplete and inaccurate information, and the “nature and extent” of his contacts with people lobbying against the tribes made it “unlikely” he could forget the interactions.
It also said the associate deputy secretary in the DOI told investigators that Indian gaming issues don’t ordinarily “rise to the level of secretarial interest,” and similar matters are usually delegated to the Bureau of Indian Affairs or Office of the Solicitor.
Zinke was sworn in as Secretary of the Interior in March 2017 and left in January 2019.
The report said two tribes had long operated casinos in Connecticut and had “exclusivity rights” with the state to do so.
Then, neighboring Massachusetts awarded a license to a company owned by a “corporate entity with a large presence in Nevada” that planned to open its own casino just north of the Connecticut border.
In response, the tribes announced plans to jointly open a casino nearby, on non-tribal lands in Connecticut, in order to preserve jobs and revenue.
The report said the tribes sought advice from the DOI on the project.
In April 2016, the tribes each received letters from the DOI informing them the new project looked appropriate, the report said. They resubmitted plans due to the change in presidential administration, and the report said they again received “favorable technical assistance” letters in May 2017.
But the report said the corporate casino executives feared the deal would have a negative impact on their industry.
In March 2017, the corporate casino hired a lobbying firm, and its president asked a political consultant who “had a long personal history” with Zinke to lobby him against approving the deal by the tribes, the report said. The report said the consultant regularly ate dinner with Zinke, including at Zinke’s Washington, D.C., residence.
“From early March through mid-September 2017, Lobbyist 1 and the Political Consultant each represented Casino’s interests in an effort to persuade Secretary Zinke not to approve the amendments,” the report said.
In September 2017, the last possible day for the Secretary to make a decision, the DOI issued a letter changing course on the proposal from the tribes, the report said.
“‘We find that there is insufficient information upon which to make a decision as to whether a new casino … would or would not violate the exclusivity clauses of the Gaming Procedures,’” the report said, quoting the letter from the DOI.
In late 2017, the tribes filed a lawsuit against the Department.
The tribes argued the Secretary’s failure to approve or disapprove their proposal meant it was “deemed approved” under the law, but they alleged the DOI failed to comply with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act by not following up with timely published notices in the Federal Register that would allow them to proceed.
However, the report said the casino industry lobbyists also were displeased with actions by the secretary because they wanted him to deny the project rather than decline to issue a decision. According to the report, a lobbyist said Zinke told him he wasn’t issuing an approval and argued he was offering “a half loaf.”
The DOI eventually published notices of approval for both tribes, one in summer 2018 and one in March 2019, the report said. In separate actions, the tribes’ claims were dismissed, but the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia also found the Secretary wasn’t obligated to act on the casino proposal within a specified amount of time as the tribes had alleged.
In the statement from his campaign, Zinke’s lawyer said the court’s decision cleared him of wrongdoing, and he alleged the IG’s report “initially concealed dispositive evidence” that the judge agreed his position “was legally sound.”
“After Secretary Zinke objected to a draft report, the IG now acknowledges this critical fact in watered down fashion,” the statement said. “Put simply, Secretary Zinke was completely candid in his interview and was legally vindicated by the Court’s decision. The content of the IG report and the timing of its release will be seen for what it is, another political smear.”
The OIG’s report said it made “minor” clarifications after providing an initial draft to Zinke for response, but it did not make any “substantive changes” to its conclusions.
“Our analysis … assesses whether Secretary Zinke spoke candidly with OIG investigators about his role in the decision pertaining to the Tribes’ amendments, not whether that decision was defensible or legally permissible,” the report said.
The report also said Zinke argued the IG’s Office should postpone the release of its findings until after the November election, citing DOJ guidelines. The IG’s Office said doing so would be inconsistent with DOJ guidance and “our ordinary processes.”
On the whole, Zinke’s statements “created the impression” he based his decision on staff guidance, but the evidence did not support that conclusion, the report said. Rather, it said key staff and counsel had said the DOI was going to approve the tribes’ request and recommended the Secretary also take that approach.
“We concluded that Secretary Zinke knowingly provided information intended to lead a reasonable person to believe that he had relied solely on internal guidance in making his decision regarding the Tribes’ amendments while knowing these statements were inaccurate,” the report said.
The Inspector General’s Office has investigated other allegations of unethical dealings by Zinke from his time as secretary. A February 2022 report found he misled investigators in a probe of his dealings in a business development in Whitefish.
The Department of Justice declined to prosecute in that case as well.
Zinke is running against lawyer and Democrat Monica Tranel in the new western district in Montana. He previously served in the U.S. House prior to his appointment as Secretary.
“For decades, he has served his country honorably and with integrity,” said the statement from his lawyer.
In response to a question by the Daily Montanan at a recent candidate forum in Missoula, Zinke also said earlier investigations were politically motivated and part of a smear campaign against him.