By Ella Nilsen, CNN
Former Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his then-chief of staff repeatedly lied to federal investigators about conversations they had with lobbyists, a US senator and Interior officials regarding granting permits for two Indian tribes’ plans to build and operate a New England casino, according to a new report from Interior’s inspector general.
Ultimately, inspector general Mark Greenblatt found Zinke and his chief at the time failed their “duty of candor” as federal officials.
Zinke and his chief of staff “made statements to OIG investigators with the overall intent to mislead them,” and “presented an inaccurate version of the circumstances in which the DOI made key decisions,” the IG wrote in a report.
Zinke left his post in the Trump administration in late 2018, after multiple ethics investigations into his conduct. Zinke is currently running for the seat from Montana’s 1st Congressional District.
The IG report also said that Zinke asked them to withhold their findings until after the 2022 midterm election.
“In his comments, Secretary Zinke cited DOJ guidelines and contended that we should postpone release of this report until after the conclusion of the November 2022 election in which he is seeking public office,” the report said.
The Interior IG referred the matter to US Department of Justice in 2018, but the Justice Department declined to prosecute in summer 2021.
The report found that as two New England tribes — the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan — sought federal permits for a Connecticut casino, Zinke and his chief of staff met with lobbyists for a larger Nevada-based casino and a Nevada senator (later identified as former Sen. Dean Heller), who were pushing them to not grant permits.
While Zinke ultimately didn’t grant or deny the permits, the IG inspectors found he lied to them about conversations he’d had with lower-ranking Interior officials, as well as misrepresenting his conversations with Heller.
“We also concluded that Secretary Zinke knew the statements described above were inaccurate or incomplete when he made them in his interviews with OIG investigators,” the report states.
A statement from Zinke’s attorney, Danny Onorato, slammed the inspector general investigation as “another political smear,” and said Zinke told the IG he was not subject to influence in the matter of the casino because “he lacked jurisdiction to act on the application.”
“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,” Onorato said. “That is wrong.”
While Greenblatt’s office initially started looking into the casino deal of the Native American tribes in New England, they eventually shifted their focus to potential wrongdoing on Zinke’s part.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva said in a statement the report “is another entry into the long litany of former Secretary Zinke’s lies and coverups” as Trump’s interior secretary.
“The report labels this as ‘lack of candor’, but the plain language word for it is ‘lying,'” Grijalva said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated how many congressional seats Montana has. There are two.
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