For nearly five years, Zinke has been facing scrutiny over whether he was swayed by lobbyists to block the tribes from opening a casino in 2017. When pressed about the casino decision by investigators, Zinke said the move came after he consulted lawyers in the Interior Department, but the watchdog report released Wednesday presented evidence to counter that.
“We found that both Secretary Zinke and the [DOI chief of staff] made statements that presented an inaccurate version of the circumstances in which the DOI made key decisions. As a result, we concluded that Secretary Zinke and the [DOI chief of staff] did not comply with their duty of candor,” a report from the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General said.
The inspector general has been investigating Zinke over his handling of the casino petition since 2017. Both the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan wanted to open an off-reservation casino in East Windsor, Connecticut, and needed approval from the Interior Department to proceed. Zinke punted the issue back to the tribes, neither approving nor denying the request, but effectively blocking it.
Over time, the watchdog’s focus evolved from how Zinke made his decision to whether he was being honest with investigators. The report noted that it was not focusing on his underlying decision “due to litigation between the Tribes and the DOI that was ongoing during our investigation and has since been resolved.”
The report released Wednesday cited multiple examples in which Zinke told investigators that the associate deputy secretary and the Interior Department’s Office of the Solicitor were critical to his decision to send the tribe’s petition back without action.
“In light of Secretary Zinke’s statements, OIG investigators re-interviewed the two senior SOL attorneys who worked on the matter. In their second interviews, held in May 2018, both attorneys denied discussing Secretary Zinke’s concerns about whether the DOI had the authority or jurisdiction to approve the Tribes’ amendments before September 2017,” the report said.
“The Associate Deputy Secretary likewise stated that Secretary Zinke had never expressed concerns directly to him about approving,” it added.
Investigators then questioned Zinke again and raised the contradicting accounts from witnesses. He insisted he did not recall discussing the casino petition with former Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) in another contraction of witness accounts. The senator had told investigators Zinke discussed the petition with him, according to the report.
In response to the report, Zinke’s attorney tore into the watchdog for releasing a “misleading and inaccurate report” ahead of the midterm elections. He panned the report as a “political smear” and was adamant that Zinke had been “completely candid in his interview.”
“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,” Zinke’s attorney Danny Onorato said in a statement to the Washington Examiner.
“Secretary Zinke was completely candid in his interview,” Onorato added. “The content of the IG report and the timing of its release will be seen for what it is, another political smear.”
Zinke resigned from his post in 2018 amid a flurry of ethics questions overshadowing his reign. Last June, he clinched the GOP nod for Montana’s 1st Congressional District.
Ultimately, his successor, David Bernhardt, gave the go-ahead for the tribes’ petition to open the casino.