Former President Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, now a candidate to return to Congress representing Montana’s 1st District, knowingly misled federal investigators when discussing a controversial casino proposal, according to the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office.
According to the internal watchdog’s report released Wednesday, investigators found that Zinke and his chief of staff, Scott Hommel, made statements that presented an “inaccurate version of the circumstances in which the DOI made key decisions,” leading the office to determine Zinke “did not comply with their duty of candor.”
Investigators noted in the report that they had given their findings to the Justice Department in 2018, but DOJ declined prosecution in this matter in the summer of 2021.
The OIG investigation revolved around an agreement between the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to build a casino in East Windsor, Conn., which required DOI to approve an amendment to the state and tribal revenue-sharing compact.
After Zinke was confirmed in 2017, DOI returned the tribes’ amendment without action, leading the tribes to sue DOI later that year over allegedly failing to comply with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
It later surfaced that Zinke withheld the tribes’ amendment after MGM Resorts Global Development LLC, a multinational casino operator, lobbied against the proposal over concerns that it would compete with a nearby MGM casino in Springfield, Mass.
Zinke resigned from his position in 2019 after a slew of ethics complaints.
The report, which has removed the names of others involved in the decision, details numerous inconsistencies between Zinke’s testimony and those of Interior attorneys, a U.S. senator and casino representatives, including his meetings with lobbyists and discussions with the solicitor’s office.
“Secretary Zinke stated more than 10 times that he had relied on the Associate Deputy Secretary and the [Office of the Solicitor] attorneys in making his decision to return the Tribes’ amendments without action,” the report said. Later, the report reads, “both attorneys denied discussing Secretary Zinke’s concerns about whether the DOI had the authority or jurisdiction to approve the Tribes’ amendments before September 2017 — the day before DOI issued letters notifying the Tribes and the State of Connecticut that it was returning the amendments without action.”
The report also includes evidence from texts, emails and interviews that pointed to Hommel knowingly misleading investigators in stating he “did not recall” specific events.
“We note at the outset that an individual is not insulated from a lack of candor finding by claiming ‘not to recall’ events,” the report says. “Given the number of times the issue of the Tribes’ amendment issue was brought before the [chief of staff (COS)], the number of witnesses who recounted communications with and by the COS, and the significance of the issue, we find it implausible that the COS forgot all these interactions and his role in the process.”
Zinke’s attorney, Danny C. Onorato of Schertler Onorato Mead & Sears, said in a statement that Zinke has “cooperated fully” despite the “politically motivated” investigation and maintains that the report is just another “political smear.”
“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. That should have ended the inquiry,” Onorato added. “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.”
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., who along with Reps. A. Donald McEachin, D-Va., and Jared Huffman, D-Calif., requested in 2018 that the watchdog examine ties between Zinke and another controversial project in Montana, said in a statement that the report is “another entry into the long litany of former Secretary Zinke’s lies and coverups.”
“The report labels this as ‘lack of candor’, but the plain language word for it is ‘lying,’” Grijalva said in a statement. “Zinke’s difficult relationship with the truth was most recently noted when he lied during the investigation into using taxpayer resources for personal gain.”
Before he served as Interior secretary, Zinke represented Montana’s at-large congressional district from 2015 to 2017.