Did Zinke lie to Interior investigators? Feds want to know

Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. (REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

(Courthouse News) A day after a report surfaced that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is under scrutiny for potentially lying to investigators in his own department, an attorney for an anti-corruption watchdog said Friday federal officials take those allegations very seriously.

The Washington Post reported late Thursday that the Interior Department’s inspector general, concerned Zinke made false statements during its inquiries, alerted the Department of Justice in October 2017 about probes into land issues and casino projects Zinke had a hand in.

In referring the case to the Justice Department, the inspector general concluded that a criminal violation may have occurred over the course of Zinke’s testimony, according to the Post, but it is unclear what exactly he may have lied about.

Zinke denied the accusations in his first interview since leaving his post, telling the Associated Press that the report was nothing more than “an unauthorized leak from an anonymous source over false allegations.”

But Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said in an interview Friday that the Justice Department takes referrals like this very seriously, especially if the case involves potential lies.

Canter, who once served as White House associate counsel to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, said although it’s difficult to speculate about the investigation without any testimony from the inspector general, that office must have felt there was credible evidence to pass the case to the Justice Department.

While Zinke insisted to the AP that the reported allegations are part of his critics’ smear-campaigning “playbook,” Canter said he is being held to the same standard of any government employee – and there have been many prior cases involving false statements at all levels of government.

“It is of tremendous importance to preserve the integrity of the government process and that is why the inspector general and Justice Department take false statements so seriously, particularly for government employees,” Canter said.

Zinke formally stepped down on Wednesday amid souring relations with President Donald Trump and ethics issues raised by traveling arrangements he made for his wife with taxpayer money.

In addition to several other accusations of ethical breaches during his time in the Trump administration, Zinke faced two inspector general inquiries from the Interior Department prior to his departure. It was his testimony in those matters that prompted the Justice Department intervention, sources told the Post.

The Interior Department honed in specifically on Zinke’s land project and real estate dealings. In Connecticut, Zinke was accused by two Native American tribes of “undue political influence” when he turned down their casino operation bid.

A 2017 proposal for a casino project by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes was blocked by Zinke’s Interior Department following objections and lobbying by MGM Resorts International. MGM reportedly complained the project would compete with its own casinos in neighboring states and prevent the possibility of an MGM casino in Connecticut.

Politico first reported there was support for the project among Zinke’s staff, including draft approval letters. While its federal lawsuit over the casino proposal was dismissed, the Mashantucket Pequot tribe continues to assert that intense lobbying from Nevada lawmakers compelled Zinke to turn down the project.

Court documents from the case say that U.S. Senator Dean Heller and Representative Mark Amodei had a private dinner with Zinke at steakhouse in Las Vegas to torpedo the tribe’s project and lobby on behalf of MGM. Zinke’s official calendar shows he was in Las Vegas in July 2017, but it does not list his activities. The tribes’ casino project was halted three months later.

An Interior Department representative told Courthouse News they were “unable to answer inquiries unrelated to” the ongoing partial government shutdown.