American investigators: Zinke abused his position as Secretary of the Interior
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke abused his position to advance a business development project that included a microbrewery in his hometown of Montana and lied to an ethics officer at the agency about its involvement, according to a report by federal investigators released Wednesday.
The Home Office Inspector General’s investigation found that Zinke had continued to work on the commercial project through a non-profit foundation in the Whitefish resort even after signing on upon taking office to sever ties with the foundation.
The report also states that Zinke gave incorrect and incomplete information to a Home Office Ethics Officer who confronted him about his involvement, and that Zinke ordered Home Office staff to help him in the project in case of abuse of his position.
The Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation was established by Zinke and others in 2007 to build a community toboggan hill in Whitefish, a tourist town about 40 miles from Glacier National Park and near the Montana-New Zealand border. Canada. Railroad company BNSF donated several acres of land to the foundation in 2008 to establish the park.
After being named Home Secretary in 2017, Zinke agreed to cut ties with the foundation and stop providing his services to it.
But after stepping down as chairman of the foundation and while employed as Home Secretary, Zinke engaged in “repeated and ongoing substantive negotiations” with developers over the use of the foundation’s property for a commercial project known as 95 Karrow, investigators said. The project included a potential microbrewery.
Zinke is a candidate in the June Republican primary for an open seat in Congress from Montana, a position he held before joining former President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
His campaign blasted the investigative report as “a political blockbuster work” and said in a statement that Zinke’s family involvement in the foundation led to the restoration of the railroad grounds into a park where children can go sledding.
“They are proud of the children’s toboggan park that dozens of children use every weekend and countless locals use for daily exercise,” the campaign statement said.
The department’s Office of Inspector General — headed by Inspector General Mark Greenblatt, a Trump nominee — forwarded the results of the Zinke investigation to federal prosecutors for possible prosecution.
But prosecutors working for President Joe Biden-appointed Attorney General Merrick Garland declined to pursue criminal charges in the summer of 2021, according to the investigative report.
Zinke and his wife, Lola, declined interview requests from federal investigators investigating the land deal.
Emails and text messages from others involved in the development project show that Zinke continued to communicate with developers even after he resigned from the foundation in March 2017 and a few days after being confirmed as secretary, according to the investigators. The messages were obtained through subpoenas to developers, which the report does not name.
“The evidence we have obtained shows that Secretary Zinke exchanged at least 64 emails and text messages and engaged in multiple phone calls in which he represented the Foundation in negotiations related to Project 95 Karrow,” they said. writes the investigators.
The report adds: “He was not simply a relay of information to and from the foundation; on the contrary, several of his own posts make it clear that he personally acted for or represented the Foundation in the negotiations.
In an email message, a person identified in the investigation report as “developer 1” wrote that Zinke wanted a piece of property transferred to the park for the brewery.
Investigators concluded that Zinke had “an apparent interest in operating an on-site microbrewery,” but the report did not provide further details about the proposed transaction and who was involved.
The email also said that Zinke had requested the “exclusive right to produce liquor at 95 Karrow,” but the investigative documents did not specify who the owners of the microbrewery would be.
Zinke Interior Department staff got involved when he asked them to arrange a meeting with three of the project’s developers in his office in August 2017 and later host a dinner party for the group after a Lincoln Memorial tour led by Zinke.
Zinke staff also printed documents for him related to 95 Karrow, a violation of rules prohibiting the use of subordinates to perform unofficial duties, according to the investigation report.
Zinke was asked about these interactions with his role in the foundation and development project in July 2018 by a Home Office ethics officer. The interview followed reports that the foundation had reached an agreement with the developers of 95 Karrow.
During the interview, Zinke denied any substantial involvement in the project, according to the report, and said the . The ethics officer later said Zinke had “misrepresented” the facts, and he called Zinke’s statements “disappointing…and very concerning,” according to the report.
Democrats, including Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, had called for an investigation into Zinke’s involvement in the project.
Grijalva said the findings show Zinke used his office to advance his personal interests and attempted to use the Peace Park to “force the inclusion of a brewery” in the development.
The land deal investigation was one of several investigations into Zinke that began while he was in Trump’s cabinet.
In another case, investigators found he violated a policy prohibiting non-government employees from riding in government cars after his wife traveled with him, but he said ethics officials had approved. Zinke was cleared of wrongdoing following a complaint that he redrew the boundaries of a national monument in Utah for the benefit of a state lawmaker and political ally.
For nearly two years overseeing the agency responsible for managing 781,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) of public land, Zinke’s broad rollbacks of restrictions on oil and gas drilling have won industry acclaim. .
But they prompted a scathing backlash from environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers who accused him of putting corporate profits ahead of conservation.
When he resigned from the Home Office, Zinke said it was because of politically motivated attacks that distracted him from his duties.
In the weeks leading up to the departure, the White House had concluded that Zinke was likely the most vulnerable Cabinet member to investigation by Democrats who were poised to take the House majority, an official said at the time. of the Trump administration.
Investigators from the Home Office Inspector General’s Office found no evidence that Zinke took any action to benefit the chairman of energy company Halliburton, who was also involved in the development, or that Zinke personnel attempted to conceal Zinke’s involvement.