Investigation: Zinke misused position as Interior secretary

FILE - In this Dec. 11, 2018 file photo, then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke speaks at EPA headquarters in Washington. Government investigators say Zinke misused his position to advance a development project in his Montana hometown and lied to an agency ethics official about his involvement. The Interior Department's inspector general said in a report made public Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, that Zinke continued working with a foundation on the commercial project in the community of Whitefish, Montana even after he committed upon taking office to breaking ties with the foundation. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)
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Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke misused his position to advance a commercial development project that included a microbrewery in his Montana hometown and lied to an agency ethics official about his involvement in the project, according to a report by federal investigators released Wednesday.

The investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general found that Zinke continued working on the commercial project through a non-profit foundation in the resort community of Whitefish, Montana even after he committed upon taking office to break ties with the foundation.

The report also said that Zinke gave incorrect and incomplete information to an Interior Department ethics official who confronted him over his involvement, and that Zinke ordered Interior Department staff to help him with the project in a misuse of his position.

The Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation was created by Zinke and others in 2007 to build a community sledding hill in Whitefish, a tourist town about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Glacier National Park and near the Montana-Canada border. The BNSF Railway company donated several acres of land to the foundation in 2008 to establish the park.

After being named Interior secretary in 2017, Zinke agreed to cut ties with the foundation and to stop providing it with his services.

But after resigning as the foundation’s president and while he was employed as the Interior Secretary, Zinke engaged in “repeated, ongoing substantive negotiations” with developers about the use of foundation property for a commercial project known as 95 Karrow, investigators said. The project included a potential microbrewery.

Zinke is a candidate in the June Republican primary for an open Montana Congressional seat, a position he held prior to joining former President Donald Trump’s cabinet.

His campaign blasted the investigative report as “a political hit job” and said in a statement that the involvement of Zinke’s family with the foundation led to the restoration of railroad land into a park where children can sled.

“They are proud of the children’s sledding park that dozens of kids use every weekend and countless locals use for exercise every day,” the campaign statement said.

The department’s inspector general’s office — led by Inspector General Mark Greenblatt, a Trump nominee — referred the results of the Zinke investigation to federal prosecutors for potential prosecution.

But the prosecutors who work for Attorney General Merrick Garland, appointed by President Joe Biden, declined to pursue criminal charges in the summer of 2021, according to the investigative report.

Zinke and his wife, Lola, declined interview requests from federal investigators who were looking into the land deal.

Emails and text messages from others who were involved in the development project show that Zinke continued to communicate with developers even after resigning from the foundation in March 2017 and days after he was confirmed as secretary, according to investigators. The messages were obtained through subpoenas to the developers, who the report does not name.

“The evidence that we obtained reflected that Secretary Zinke exchanged at least 64 emails and text messages and engaged in multiple phone calls in which he represented the Foundation in negotiations related to the 95 Karrow project,” investigators wrote.

The report added: “He was not simply a passthrough for information to and from the foundation; to the contrary, several of his own messages make clear that he personally acted for or represented the Foundation in connection with the negotiations.”

Zinke was questioned about his role in the foundation and the development project in July 2018 by an Interior Department ethics official. The interview followed news reports that the foundation had entered an agreement with 95 Karrow’s developers.

During that July 2018 interview, Zinke denied any substantive involvement in the project, according to the report. The ethics official later said that Zinke had “misrepresented” the facts and he called Zinke’s statements “disappointing…and very concerning,” according to the report.

The investigation into the land deal was one of numerous probes of Zinke that began when he was in Trump’s cabinet.

In another case, investigators found that he violated a policy prohibiting non-government employees from riding in government cars after his wife traveled with him, but he said ethics officials approved it. Zinke was cleared of wrongdoing following a complaint that he redrew the boundaries of a national monument in Utah to benefit a state lawmaker and political ally.

During almost two years overseeing the agency responsible for managing 781,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) of public lands, Zinke’s broad rollbacks of restrictions on oil and gas drilling were cheered by industry.

But they brought a scathing backlash from environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers who accused him of putting corporate profits ahead of preservation.

When he resigned from the Interior Department, Zinke said it was because of politically motivated attacks that had created a distraction from his duties.

In the weeks leading up to departure, the White House had concluded Zinke was likely the Cabinet member most vulnerable to investigations led by Democrats who were poised to take the majority in the House, a Trump administration official said at the time.Investigators with the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office found no evidence that Zinke took any actions to benefit the chairman of the energy company Halliburton, who was also involved in the development, or that members of Zinke’s staff tried to conceal Zinke’s involvement.