Energy & Environment

Watchdog: Trump Interior head misled investigators in casino case

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his chief of staff misled an internal federal watchdog about the department’s decision to punt on a proposed Native American casino in Connecticut, the watchdog said in a report released Wednesday.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) wrote in the report that in May 2017, an unnamed political consultant texted a casino lobbyist to inform him he would be dining with Zinke. The consultant confirmed to the OIG that he and Zinke regularly dined together and discussed the casino lobby’s arguments against amendments by two tribes to allow them to construct casinos off-reservation. 

In interviews with OIG personnel, Zinke — who is now the GOP nominee for a new congressional district in western Montana — reportedly said he had not discussed the matter with the lobbyist, who was also unnamed, saying if he had interacted with the lobbyist it was only in a casual social setting. However, in the report, OIG wrote that “extensive evidence” indicated the lobbyist had specifically used the consultant to convey his concerns to Zinke.

The consultant told the OIG that in addition to discussing the casino’s arguments against the tribes at multiple dinners, he also asked Zinke if he could send him a one-page summary of those arguments in August 2017, to which Zinke responded, “Sure.” Later that month, both the lobbyist and the consultant dined at Zinke’s house, which the consultant said was specifically to allow the lobbyist to make his case directly to Zinke. 

The OIG referred its finding in 2018 to the Justice Department, which declined to take action.

In a response included with the OIG report, Zinke denied any wrongdoing and suggested the report’s release was improper ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, as he is a candidate for a House seat. Zinke’s attorneys also called the report’s findings inaccurate, noting that he did not outright reject the proposal and thus “did not adopt the position of any lobbyist for or against the project.” 

“His testimony was, and remains, that the DOI [Department of the Interior] should not have jurisdiction over off-reservation land,” the response states. “In other words, he did not believe Interior had jurisdiction over the issue and therefore refused to opine.” 

Zinke’s campaign blasted the report, calling it “misleading and inaccurate.”

“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. 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,” the campaign said.

The report does not identify the tribes or the casino lobbying against them by name. However, the timeline and location align with a proposal by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, which led to intense lobbying from Nevada lawmakers and the Nevada-based MGM Resorts International, which had also eyed a new casino in Bridgeport, Conn. In September 2017, the department declined to approve or deny the proposed tribal amendments allowing a casino on nontribal lands. 

The state of Connecticut and the Mashantucket tribe sued in 2017, arguing improper influence by Zinke. In March 2019, two months after Zinke left his position at Interior, the department dropped its opposition to the casino. 

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a frequent adversary of Zinke during his time as Interior Secretary, said in a statement that the report illustrated part of a “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.’  Zinke’s difficult relationship with the truth was most recently noted when he lied during the investigation into using taxpayer resources for personal gain.”

Updated at 2:44 p.m.

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