A federal grand jury is meeting to determine whether former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke lied to federal investigators about his decision to hold up casino permits for two Connecticut Indian tribes while he was Secretary of the Interior.
According to the Washington Post, Department of Justice prosecutors began presenting evidence to a grand jury last week, using evidence provided by the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office. The inspector general has been investigating whether Zinke was improperly swayed by lobbying and political pressure in a number of instances.
In this case, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, which already run two casinos, applied to Interior in September 2017 for permission to open a third.
They reportedly encountered resistance, because they planned to build the casino on non-tribal land just across the state border from a billion-dollar casino that MGM Resorts International was planning in Springfield, Mass. But it’s not the first time they’ve run into high-level opposition.
The tribes have run the Pequot tribe’s Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun casinos in Connecticut since the early 1990s, which were tough competition for casinos in Atlantic City, including the now-defunct Trump Taj Mahal. Trump complained about the Foxwoods Casino during a 1993 congressional hearing, saying “they don’t look like Indians to me.”
During the first half of 2017, as the tribes worked toward changing their gaming compact with Connecticut, initial indications from the Interior Department were that the permit would sail through the process.
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and the state legislature had already signed off on the changes, as long as the tribes agreed to guarantee a certain share of slot revenues to the state.
But in the meantime, Zinke had multiple conversations with Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei — two Nevada Republicans whose state is a major center of employment for MGM, and who have tried to impede the tribes’ casino plans, Politico reported.
The law requires the DOI to review state-approved changes to tribal gaming compacts within 45 days. The tribes submitted their application in mid-September and requested follow-up meetings with Zinke. They got no response.
The November deadline passed with Zinke taking no action, which essentially blocked the casino. The DOI gave no explanation other than the agency had “insufficient information” to make a decision and that the changes were “premature.”
When the tribes sued Zinke in February 2018, they claimed that MGM had been given lobbying access to Zinke that the tribes had not. In response, MGM asked to be able to intervene on behalf of the DOI.
In October, a judge dismissed the case, citing a technicality that meant the Mashantucket tribe didn’t have grounds to sue. But the judge reopened the case 10 days ago, after allowing the tribe to amend its suit.
Zinke declined to comment on the grand jury investigation, according to Politico. “Have a great day, bye-bye,” Zinke reportedly said when reached by a Politico reporter Friday afternoon, before hanging up.
Zinke resigned as Interior Secretary in December under the shadow of more than a dozen ethics controversies, including reports of multiple Department of Justice investigations into his activities.
Jayson O’Neill, Western Values Project spokesman, told the Missoula Current on Monday that he wondered what motivated Zinke to say what he did to investigators.
Western Values Project, a Montana-based watchdog group, filed a lawsuit in October demanding access to Zinke’s official emails and travel documents that could reveal possible ethics violations related to lobbying and misuse of taxpayer money.
“It appears that there are some real questions on how this decision or non-decision was made, for what purposes,” O’Neill said. “We have questions about how that involvement circles around former Interior Sec. Gale Norton, who met several times with the Interior leadership around this time. And how it could involve the acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose former lobbying firm now lobbies on behalf of MGM. It raises a lot more questions. It would be surprising if Secretary Zinke acted alone on this decision.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.