US investigators: Zinke misappropriated his job as Interior secretary
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Former U.S. Ryan Zinke, Interior Secretary, misused his position for commercial development projects that included a microbrewery located in his Montana hometown. He also lied to an agency ethics official about it, federal investigators stated Wednesday.
According to the report, the inspector general of the Interior Department found that Zinke continued to work on the commercial project via a nonprofit foundation in Whitefish, despite his promise to end ties with it.
Zinke and other volunteers created the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation in 2007 in order to build a community snowshoe hill in Whitefish. Whitefish is a tourist destination located 25 miles (40 km) from Glacier National Park, and close to the Montana-Canada border. In 2008, the foundation received several acres of land from the BNSF Railway company to help establish the park.
Zinke, who was appointed Interior secretary in 2017, agreed to cease providing foundation services.
Investigators say that Zinke resigned as president of the foundation and was still employed as the Interior secretary. Zinke then engaged in "repeated substantive negotiations" with developers regarding the use foundation property for 95 Karrow's commercial project.
Zinke's campaign attacked the investigative report calling it "a political hitjob" and stated in a statement that Zinke's involvement with the foundation resulted in the restoration of railroad land to a park where children could sled.
The statement stated that Zinke and his family are proud of the children’s sledding park, which dozens of kids use each weekend and many locals use to exercise every day. Zinke is well ahead of his competitors in fundraising before the June 7 Republican primary to fill the Montana open congressional seat. This position Zinke held before joining President Donald Trump's cabinet.
The Zinke investigation was referred to the prosecutors by the department's inspector general's, which is led by Mark Greenblatt, a Trump nominee. According to the report, federal prosecutors under Attorney General Merrick Galrland, who was appointed last summer by President Joe Biden declined to pursue criminal prosecutions.
Zinke and Lola, his wife, declined interviews from federal investigators investigating the land deal.
Investigators found that Zinke communicated with developers through text messages and emails from other people involved in the project, even though he had resigned from the foundation in March 2017. These messages were obtained by subpoenas issued to developers who were not identified.
Investigators stated that evidence showed Secretary Zinke had exchanged at most 64 text messages and emails with him and that he engaged in multiple phone calls where he represented the Foundation during negotiations regarding the 95 Karrow project.
The report stated that "He wasn't just a passer-through for information to and fro the foundation; rather, several of his messages indicate that he personally represented or acted for the Foundation in connection to the negotiations."
One email message from "developer 1" stated that Zinke requested a piece to be transferred to the park. According to the report, Zinke also requested the "exclusive right" to produce alcohol at 95 Karrow.
Investigators found that Zinke showed "apparent interest" in operating a microbrewery at the site. However, the report didn't provide any details or identify the owners.
Zinke's Interior Department staff got involved after he instructed them to meet three developers of the project at his office in August 2017. Later, he also directed them to organize dinner for the group after a guided tour of the Lincoln Memorial. The investigative report stated that Zinke's staff also printed documents related to 95 Karrow. This was a violation against rules against subordinates performing non-official duties.
Zinke was interrogated by an Interior Department ethics officer in July 2018 about his involvement in the foundation's development project. This was in response to news reports that Zinke had signed an agreement with 95 Karrow’s developers.
According to the report, Zinke claimed that he had no substantive involvement in the project during the interview. According to the report, the ethics official stated that Zinke had "misrepresented" facts and called Zinke’s statements "disappointing...and very concerning".
Arizona Rep. Raul Guilva, chairman of House Natural Resources Committee, requested that Zinke be investigated. Grijalva stated that Zinke used his office for his personal gain and tried to use the peace park as a way to force a brewery to be included in the development.
According to the Whitefish Pilot, Whitefish officials approved revised plans for 95 Karrow's construction in September. Plans include the construction of a 70-room hotel and a microbrewery. There will also be offices, shops, offices, restaurants, offices, and 84 residential units. Representatives from developer 95 Karrow LLC didn't immediately return telephone calls seeking comment.
Investigators did not find any evidence that Zinke had benefited from Halliburton's actions -- David Lesar, the former chairman of the company, was an investor at the Whitefish development -- nor that Zinke's staff attempted to hide Zinke’s involvement.
Zinke's investigation into the land deal was just one of many probes that Zinke began while he was still in Trump's cabinet.
Investigators discovered that Zinke violated a policy forbidding non-government employees to ride in government cars after his spouse traveled with him. However, he claimed that ethics officials had approved the move. After a complaint that Zinke had redrawn the boundaries of a Utah national monument to benefit a political ally and state lawmaker, Zinke was cleared. A second investigation was conducted to determine his decision to prevent two tribes opening a casino at Connecticut.
Zinke's wide-ranging rollbacks on oil drilling restrictions were praised by the industry while he was in charge of a agency that managed 781,000 miles (2 million kilometers) of public lands. They drew a rebuke from environmental groups as well as Democratic lawmakers, who accused Zinke of putting corporate profits above preservation.
Zinke claimed that political motivated attacks caused a distraction when he resigned in 2018 from the Interior Department. The White House determined that Zinke was most likely the Cabinet member most susceptible to investigations by Democrats, who were poised for the majority in Congress, according to a Trump administration official.