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Interior watchdog referred Zinke probe to Justice days before move to replace agency IG

The Interior Department’s internal watchdog referred its investigation of Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeDeath toll in Northern California wildfire rises to 48: authorities Overnight Energy: EPA weighs tougher pollution rule for trucks | Zinke to visit California wildfire areas | EPA official indicted in Alabama Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl feeds firefighters in California MORE to the Department of Justice (DOJ) more than two weeks ago, just days before it was announced that Interior would be getting a Trump political appointee to replace its acting inspector general, two sources confirmed to The Hill.

Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonNumber of homeless vets declined in last year Overnight Energy: Chief energy regulator vows to steer clear of political fights | Zinke was referred to DOJ shortly before watchdog controversy | Groups threaten to sue EPA over paint stripper The remarkable similarities between 9/11 and Jamal Khashoggi’s murder MORE, head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), told his staff on Oct. 12 that Suzanne Tufts would be leaving HUD to replace Interior's longtime acting inspector general (IG), Mary Kendall — after the watchdog referred its probe to the Justice Department, according to two government sources with knowledge of the timeline.

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One source described the timing as "incredibly circumspect" and raised questions about whether the plan to have Tufts fill a position traditionally occupied by a career staffer was in reaction to the investigation that was referred to the DOJ. 

“That is exactly what we were concerned about two weeks ago,” said Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of policy at the Project on Government Oversight.

“The IG office is not only in charge of investigating the secretary but keeping the entire agency kind of in check. The movement of a political appointee with no oversight experience into that role kinda makes it look like that move was to stymie that investigation or keep an eye on what was going on internally.”

Tufts would have overseen all investigations at Interior, including at least four known open investigations into Zinke, and she would have been authorized to end investigations that were already underway. The watchdog’s investigations, once referred to the DOJ, remain ongoing, meaning Tufts would have had some influence over the one sent to the Justice Department shortly before her move was announced.

The specific nature of the investigation into Zinke, referred to the DOJ and reported this week, has not been made public.

A week after Carson emailed staff about Tufts's planned departure, HUD announced that she was not joining Interior and had instead resigned. The housing agency chalked it up to a miscommunication.

Zinke said this week he was unaware of the DOJ investigation and has not been contacted for it. In a statement Tuesday, his lawyer said in a statement, “The Secretary has done nothing wrong.”

The IG has a policy of not identifying subjects when their investigations are referred to the Justice Department.

The DOJ is not commenting on the matter. HUD and the Interior Department did not immediately respond on Wednesday to requests for comment from The Hill.

"That this referral implicates a current member of the president's Cabinet is concerning, and as an organization that pushes for accountability at all levels of government service, we are paying close attention to this story," Hempowicz said.

Earlier this month Interior’s Office of Inspector General released a report that said Zinke had violated department travel policies by bringing his family members in government-owned vehicles. The investigation also said Zinke and his wife brought a Park Police security detail on a vacation, costing more than $25,000, though there was no policy prohibiting it. After investigators started looking into the issue, Interior changed the travel policy to allow family members on official trips.

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Other investigations the IG is looking into include a real estate deal Zinke was reportedly poised to benefit from financially that's backed by the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton in the secretary’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont., and a decision Zinke made last year to not approve a casino project in Connecticut following heavy lobbying from competing casino giant MGM.

The inspector general is required to establish legal grounds for a case, criminal or civil, before referring matters to the Justice Department. The watchdog is also required to refer cases to the DOJ when it has reasonable grounds to believe there is a violation of federal criminal law. The DOJ is not obligated to take up every case it receives.

“If Democrats are given the opportunity to hold a congressional majority next year, Secretary Zinke will be called to testify in February on why his conduct in office merited referral to the Justice Department, whether that referral was related to the recent attempted firing of his inspector general, and his many other failures and scandals,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department.

Updated at 10:26 a.m.