A federal watchdog’s report accusing a former Trump cabinet official of lying to investigators is raising eyebrows due to its timing: four years after Ryan Zinke’s alleged transgression and just over two months before he appears on the ballot for the House seat he previously held.
The 44-page report by the Department of the Interior (DOI) Inspector General (IG) Mark Greenblatt found that Zinke, the agency’s former secretary, and his chief of staff “lacked candor” with investigators probing Zinke’s September 2017 decision involving an Indian casino. Zinke’s attorney, Danny Onorato, called the report and its timing a “political smear,” coming some two months before Zinke — a former Montana congressman — will be on the ballot bidding to take back that role in November.
“Secretary Zinke repeatedly told the inspector general that he was not subject to any influence in that matter because he lacked jurisdiction to act on the application,” Onorato said in a statement. “That should have ended the inquiry. Instead, on the eve of an election, the IG has released a misleading and inaccurate report that suggested Secretary Zinke lacked candor in his interview with IG agents. That is wrong.”
The decision by Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who served as secretary from 2017-2019, involved an application by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation to open an off-reservation casino in Connecticut. The DOI manages Indian reservations, and typically approves, rejects, or takes no action on such proposals, with the latter option usually signaling tacit approval. Zinke’s position was that because the proposed casino was not on federal land, it required a “fourth option,” in which the state would decide.
Some Department attorneys opposed the decision, allegedly out of fear it could lead to a lawsuit. But a federal judge’s ruling later vindicated Zinke’s view. Nonetheless, by May 2018, the IG interviewed Zinke in an investigation involving the decision and referred the matter to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for possible prosecution in 2018.
Many of the allegedly false statements involved Zinke claiming that career DOI attorneys supported his decision, a claim the watchdog said was undermined by a Department lawyer’s account that he was not “thrilled” but did believe Zinke’s decision was legal.
Zinke is also accused of downplaying interactions with lobbyists with a stake in the issue, including one political consultant with ties to Zinke who went skiing with him and had dinner at his home.
But the report obscures the fact that Zinke did not do what lobbyists wanted him to. In one text message between two lobbyists, one complained that Zinke’s decision was “not what we want. He thinks we can litigate against State. He thinks it’s a half loaf. That’s from Zinke.”
Heather Swift, Zinke’s campaign manager, told The Daily Wire that Zinke “came to the decision before any lobbyists contacted him or his chief, and his decision never changed, so that would mean none of them influenced his decision making.”
Last year, President Joe Biden’s DOJ declined to take action. The IG says it waited for a response from the DOJ, then conducted more than a year of further “administrative” investigation into Zinke — who had resigned in 2019 — which is why the report was released now.
Greenblatt’s office did not respond to questions from The Daily Wire about the predicate of the investigation or why it continued its investigation long after Zinke was gone and the DOJ had declined to prosecute.
In June, Zinke, who represented Montana in the House from 2015-2017, won the Republican primary for the state’s newly created western district. He faces Democrat Monica Tranel in the November election.