Federal inspector general's report claims Zinke misled investigators looking at tribal casino decision

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Posted at 4:56 PM, Aug 25, 2022

HELENA — Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke misled investigators about his office’s handling of a proposal to build a tribal casino and his dealings with a competing casino and its lobbyists, according to a federal inspector general’s report released Wednesday.

Zinke’s attorneys are calling the report “inaccurate and flawed.” They said its release during his campaign for Montana’s western congressional district was inappropriate and urged that it be delayed until after November’s election.

The 44-page report was posted Wednesday by the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General. It found Zinke and his former chief of staff “did not comply with their duty of candor” when questioned about their role in the decision, and that they “made statements to OIG investigators with the overall intent to mislead them.”

The U.S. Justice Department declined last year to prosecute Zinke for any violations related to the report, but the OIG said it is referring its report to current Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for “any action deemed appropriate.”

The report redacts all individuals’ names, except for Zinke’s, and the names of tribes and businesses involved. However, the details provided make clear that the incident at the center of it was the 2015 proposal by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes – the two tribes that currently operate casinos in Connecticut – to create a third, jointly-owned casino off tribal lands. That proposal came in response to MGM Resorts International’s 2014 plan to build a casino in Springfield, Massachusetts.

According to the report, the tribes asked the Interior Department to approve an amendment to their tribal gaming rules and compact with Connecticut, seeking to confirm the new casino wouldn’t change their current agreement with the state. Under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Interior Secretary typically has the option to approve a gaming compact, reject it or allow it to go into effect by taking no action within 45 days. In this case, the department told the tribes it was “returning” the amendments, saying they were premature and the department didn’t need to take action on them.

DOI’s decision eventually led to legal action by the tribes and the state of Connecticut. Those lawsuits were eventually dismissed, and the amendments were allowed to move forward.

The report says lobbyists for Nevada-based casino operators, as well as a U.S. senator from Nevada, met with DOI staff including Zinke, arguing that the department didn’t have the authority to approve the tribes’ amendments because they would have expanded tribal casinos to non-trust land.

According to the report, OIG investigators interviewed Zinke about his role in the decision in 2018. They said he stated he made the decision himself and with backing from DOI attorneys, and that he denied talking to people outside the department about specific arguments against the amendment.

However, the inspector general concluded Zinke’s denials of having “substantive communications” with lobbyists were “less credible than those of the various external parties who stated that there were such discussions about the Tribes’ amendments.” They said lobbyists and casino executives exchanged frequent messages laying out efforts to lobby Zinke against the amendments. In addition, the report says DOI staff denied advising Zinke to return the amendments.

In a response included in the report, Zinke’s attorneys said he had always believed he had no jurisdiction over a proposal for gaming on tribal land, and that he was therefore not influenced by any lobbyists. They said he was truthful about his interactions with lobbyists, and that he never initiated any discussions on the matter. They also said “there was no basis” to conduct the review into Zinke’s decision, and that a federal judge eventually upheld his position that he was not obliged to approve or disapprove the amendments.

In addition, Zinke’s attorneys said the timing of the report’s release was “disturbing and improper,” and that it should be delayed until after the upcoming congressional election because of U.S. Department of Justice guidelines about accusations against a candidate in an imminent election.

In the report, the OIG said there had been no unnecessary delay in the report’s completion, and that since the DOJ guidelines said “partisan politics must play no role” in investigative decisions, they believed delaying the report could be perceived as having a political purpose.

After the report was released Wednesday, Zinke’s congressional campaign shared a statement from his attorney, Danny C. Onorato, with MTN. In it, Onorato called the OIG’s investigation – which began more than four years ago, while Zinke was still actively serving as Interior Secretary – “politically motivated.” He said Zinke was not subject to influence because he had no jurisdiction in the matter, and that that should have ended the investigation.

“Put simply, Secretary Zinke was completely candid in his interview and was legally vindicated by the Court’s decision,” Onorato said. The content of the IG report and the timing of its release will be seen for what it is, another political smear.”

The current DOI inspector general, Mark Lee Greenblatt, was appointed to the position in 2019, during President Donald Trump’s administration, and he was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a voice vote.

Monica Tranel, Zinke’s Democratic opponent in the western district congressional race, released a statement Wednesday in response to the report.

"As I travel across the district one of the most common refrains I hear is that voters want someone in Congress they can trust,” Tranel said. “Based on his actions, it’s clear we can’t trust Ryan Zinke.”

Earlier this year, the inspector general’s office released another report, saying Zinke “misused his federal position” by remaining involved with a Whitefish land development as Interior Secretary, but that he did not violate conflict-of-interest laws.