DOJ investigating Interior chief Ryan Zinke

The top government watchdog overseeing the Interior Department has referred an investigation into agency head Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule Future of controversial international hunting council up in the air Overnight Energy: Advisory panel pushes park service to privatize campgrounds | Dems urge Perry to keep lightbulb efficiency rules | Marshall Islands declares national climate crisis MORE to the Justice Department (DOJ) for potential prosecution.

One of the ongoing probes by Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) into Zinke will now be looked into by agents at the DOJ, a source confirmed to The Hill.

The Washington Post first reported the news Tuesday.

CNN, citing two sources, reported later Tuesday that the DOJ inquiry is looking into whether Zinke used his office for personal gain.

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Zinke told CNN that he didn’t know about the DOJ probe, and called the effort “politically driven.”

“They haven't talked to me,” he told the news outlet.

“It will be the same thing as all the other investigations. I follow all rules, procedures, regulations and most importantly the law. This is another politically driven investigation that has no merit.”

Steve Ryan, Zinke's counsel, called the reports "unsubstantiated."

"The Secretary has not been contacted or notified of any DOJ investigation or Inspector General referral. It is disappointing that unsubstantiated and anonymous sources have described an IG office referral to members of the media, as this violates DOJ and IG policy direction," he said in a statement to The Hill.

He added: "The Secretary has done nothing wrong."

A spokesperson for Interior's OIG said they can't comment on ongoing investigations. A DOJ spokesman said it is the agency's policy not to confirm, deny or comment on potential probes.

The agency currently has three open investigations into the secretary, including a real estate business deal Zinke entered into with the chairman of oil field services company Halliburton and another on a decision he made against approving a casino project in Connecticut after heavy lobbying from casino giant MGM.

The Interior Department was in the spotlight earlier in the month after The Hill first reported that the Interior Department would be replacing its long-time deputy Inspector General with a Trump political appointee, Suzanne Tufts, who was previously confirmed to a job at Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Interior later denied that the replacement was ever finalized. A HUD spokesman later apologized for the misinformation and said the employee had resigned.

Earlier this month, Interior's inspector general’s office found that Zinke used taxpayer-funded travel for his wife, breaking internal policies against the practice.

Interior spokeswoman Heather swift framed that report as exoneration.

“The Inspector General report proves what we have known all along: the secretary follows all relevant laws and regulations and that all of his travel was reviewed and approved by career ethics officials and solicitors prior to travel,” she said.

“Additionally, the secretary received the same exact legal advice from the solicitors as previous secretaries and he acted consistently. The report even said so.”

After investigators started looking into the issue, Interior changed the travel policy to allow family members on official trips.

The Center for Western Priorities, an opponent of Zinke’s agenda, on Tuesday applauded DOJ for taking up the probe.

“Since stepping into his role as interior secretary, Ryan Zinke has repeatedly leveraged his office for personal gain, attracting unprecedented scrutiny from government investigators. We are glad to see Interior’s Inspector General take these matters seriously and refer the investigation into the secretary’s conduct to the Department of Justice,” Jennifer Rokala, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.

--This report was updated at 3:26 p.m.