Ryan Zinke, a former interior secretary during the Trump administration, intentionally misled investigators looking into his department’s decision not to act on two Native American tribes’ requests to open a new casino in Connecticut, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General concluded in a report released on Wednesday.
Mr. Zinke, who served as interior secretary from 2017 to 2019, is now the Republican nominee for a congressional seat in Montana. He is widely expected to win the general election this November.
The 44-page report on Wednesday focused not on the casino decision itself — litigation over that was resolved separately — but on whether Mr. Zinke and his former chief of staff had been honest about it.
Extensive efforts by unnamed lobbyists to persuade Mr. Zinke not to approve the tribes’ applications, as well as conversations between Mr. Zinke and an unnamed senator, are described in the report. It says that, in interviews with investigators, Mr. Zinke denied having significant conversations with the lobbyists and stated repeatedly that he had decided not to approve the tribes’ applications based on advice from the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor. But lawyers in that office told the investigators that they had never spoken directly with Mr. Zinke.
A lawyer for Mr. Zinke, Danny C. Onorato, said in a statement that Mr. Zinke had “cooperated fully in a politically motivated investigation.”
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“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,” Mr. Onorato said. “That should have ended the inquiry. Instead, on the eve of an election, the I.G. has released a misleading and inaccurate report that suggested Secretary Zinke lacked candor in his interview with I.G. agents. That is wrong.”
The report said it would be “a fair reading of Secretary Zinke’s statements” to conclude that he had based his decision about the casino request on the advice of lawyers for the Office of the Solicitor and that “he was not influenced by the considerations or recommendations of third parties.”
“Given the number and extent of communications with these outside personnel, combined with the absence of information that anyone — counsel or otherwise — within the agency advised this course of action, we find that Secretary Zinke’s description of events was not accurate,” the report continued. It characterized Mr. Zinke and his chief of staff as not complying “with their duty of candor when questioned.”
Mr. Zinke’s former chief of staff was not named in the report. A person who held that position did not immediately respond to a request for comment sent through the organization he currently works for.
“Lack of candor” is defined in the report as “a broader and more flexible concept” than falsification, emphasizing that it does not necessarily require intent to deceive. Rather, it requires proof that a person “gave incorrect or incomplete information” and “did so knowingly.”
Wednesday’s report is a final, revised version of a draft report that Mr. Zinke was given an opportunity to respond to; his response was included in the final version. The Office of Inspector General submitted its initial findings in 2018 to the Justice Department, which declined to file charges in 2021. The office said in the final report that it would provide it to the current interior secretary, Deb Haaland, “for any action deemed appropriate.”
Mr. Zinke has been the subject of multiple ethics investigations related to his actions as interior secretary. Earlier this year, the Office of Inspector General found that he had improperly participated in negotiations about a real estate project in Whitefish, Mont., and then lied to investigators about his involvement.
Before becoming interior secretary, Mr. Zinke represented Montana’s at-large congressional district from 2015 to 2017. He is now running in the First District, newly drawn after Montana gained a seat in the 2020 census. Three major election forecasters — the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball — all rate the race as “likely Republican,” and a fourth, FiveThirtyEight, rates it as “solid Republican.”