Trump-era U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke “misused” his position to advance a private land development deal while in office and then lied about it when questioned by a federal ethics official, the agency’s statutory watchdog said in a Wednesday report.
In the 34-page document issued by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of the Interior, investigators allege that Zinke continued working with the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation while in office, despite saying that he had resigned his position when appointed to work as the head of the agency in 2017.
Though he did formally resign, the report notes, “Zinke continued to be involved in Foundation matters while he was Secretary of the Interior, even after resigning from the Foundation and committing in required documentation to relevant Federal officials that he would no longer manage or provide services to the Foundation.”
The foundation was established by Zinke and several others in 2007. The former interior secretary and his wife had long been in negotiations with private developers to turn the group’s land in Whitefish, Montana–a tiny town mostly known for outdoor recreation–into a massive, commercial, mixed-use development complete with a hotel, microbrewery, restaurant, and other businesses.
The report notes in its executive summary:
[E]mails and text messages the developers produced showed that Secretary Zinke continued to be involved in Foundation matters while he was Secretary of the Interior, even after resigning from the Foundation and committing in required documentation to relevant Federal officials that he would no longer manage or provide services to the Foundation. Specifically, the communications showed that Secretary Zinke repeatedly communicated with the developers of the 95 Karrow project and negotiated with them on behalf of the Foundation by discussing the use of Foundation property for the project, specific design aspects of the project, and the development of a microbrewery on the property.
“Zinke, his wife, and the 95 Karrow project developers, through their attorneys, declined our requests for an interview in this matter,” the report notes. It is based entirely on the emails and text messages from developers, which were obtained as the result of document production subpoenas issued by the agency watchdog.
In sum, the OIG found Zinke “violated his ethics obligations as set forth in his ethics agreement, recusal memorandum, and accompanying documents by continuing to be involved in Foundation matters” while working as Donald Trump‘s secretary of the interior.
Additionally, according to the report, the then-secretary “knowingly provided materially incorrect, incomplete, and misleading answers,” when questioned in July 2018 “about his role in ongoing Foundation matters and the 95 Karrow project.”
Investigators also allege Zinke “misused his official position” by directing “his subordinates to perform activities related to the 95 Karrow project and its developers on their official duty time that were not related to their official duties” as federal staffers.
The investigation was premised on allegations that Zinke used his official position to reward a Hallburton Company executive who was also one of the project’s primary developers and investors and that Zinke “may have used Federal resources and his position as Secretary of the Interior for personal financial gain” while, finally, directing his staffers to disavow and coverup any involvement in the project.
None of those more serious allegations were confirmed by the report.
Ultimately, the OIG failed to substantiate any alleged criminal violations and the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute Zinke over what amounted to, in the agency’s determination, ethical lapses.
Zinke is currently running for Congress in Montana. According to the Associated Press, he called the OIG report “a political hit job.”
Read the full report below:
[image via Shawn Thew/Pool/Getty Images]
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