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Watchdog clears Zinke of wrongdoing in redrawing of Utah monument boundaries

Watchdog clears Zinke of wrongdoing in redrawing of Utah monument boundaries

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Interior finalizes plan to open 80 percent of Alaska petroleum reserve to drilling | Justice Department lawyers acknowledge presidential transition in court filing | Trump admin pushes for permits for men who inspired Bundy standoff Trump administration pushes for grazing permits for men who inspired Bundy standoff Interior secretary tests positive for COVID-19 after two days of meetings with officials: report MORE was cleared of any wrongdoing after an investigation was opened into his controversial decision to redraw the boundaries of a Utah national monument around a former lawmaker’s property.

The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General found that there was no evidence that Zinke gave former state Rep. Mike Noel (R) special treatment when he determined to shrink the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in December. Noel owns a company with a 40-acre inholding that was originally within the monument’s boundary.

"We found no evidence that Noel influenced the DOI's proposed revisions to the GSENM boundaries, that Zinke of other DOI staff involved in the project were aware of Noel's financial interest in the revised boundaries, or that they gave Noel any preferential treatment in the resulting proposed boundaries," read the cover letter to the report, obtained by The Hill.

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A spokesperson for the inspector general confirmed that their report on Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was sent to Interior on Nov. 21. Congress has not yet seen the report. The findings are expected to be released publicly next month.

An Interior spokesperson said the report absolved Zinke of all wrongdoing. The secretary has been investigated by the inspector general for a number of ethical questions including his use of various charter flights and a speech he gave to the Las Vegas Golden Knights professional hockey team.

“The report shows exactly what the secretary's office has known all along — that the monument boundaries were adjusted in accordance with all rules, regulations and laws. This report is also the latest example of political opponents and special interest groups ginning up fake and misleading stories, only to be proven false after expensive and time consuming inquiries by the [inspector general's] office,” the Interior spokesperson said.

Zinke is still facing a potential Department of Justice investigation into a land deal he embarked on with Halliburton Co. Chairman David Lesar. The investigation, reported in October, sets the stage for a comprehensive review of the former Montana lawmaker’s business ties.

Zinke likely faces tough questions about a number of his actions next year when Democrats formally take control of the House. Democratic lawmakers have also said they plan to call for further investigations into Zinke's involvement with a failed interagency plan to replace the current head Interior inspector general with a Trump political appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

This story has been updated