HELENA — Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke “misused his federal position” and violated ethical obligations when he remained involved with a Whitefish land development and proposed microbrewery, while he was Interior secretary, an Interior Department inspector general report said Wednesday.
But the report said investigators found no evidence that Zinke took part in any “official matters” related to the land development project or violated any related conflict-of-interest laws while he was secretary.
The U.S. Justice Department also declined last year to prosecute Zinke for any violations related to the report, but the Interior Inspector General’s Office said it is referring its report to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland for “any action deemed appropriate.”
Zinke, who resigned as Interior secretary under then-President Trump in early 2019, is currently running for Congress in Montana’s new western congressional district – one of four Republicans in the 2022 race.
Zinke’s campaign said Wednesday that Interior “sat on” the information for months after the Justice Department said it would not pursue the matter and that it “reeks of a political hit job.”
It also said the Biden administration didn’t talk to Zinke, his staff or anyone involved in “the non-existent negotiations” with the developers of the Whitefish project, that Zinke didn’t benefit personally, and that the report made “subjective determinations” that Zinke had knowingly misled investigators.
However, the report noted that Zinke, his wife Lola and developers of the Whitefish project declined to talk to Interior OIG investigators. Also, Interior’s inspector general, Mark Greenblatt, was appointed by former President Trump.
The report focused on actions by Zinke related to a development on land linked to the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park in Whitefish, including a sledding hill. The Zinkes, through a foundation, had used land donated by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway to create the park. But a portion of the donated land also was used by the chair of oil-services giant Halliburton for development of private businesses.
The report said Zinke continued to be involved in Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation matters, related to the land development, while he was Interior secretary, even though he had promised not to, as a condition of the Interior post. It said he “repeatedly communicated with the developers” of the private businesses, which included a proposed hotel, microbrewery and restaurant.
Zinke resigned as president of the foundation upon being confirmed as Interior secretary in March 2017 and said he would not “manage or provide any other services” to the organization, the report said, and his wife became foundation president.
Yet investigators said they obtained 64 emails and text messages from August 2017 to July 2018 in which Zinke communicated directly with developers of the 95 Karrow project, primarily about the details of a proposed parking lot, and his interest in operating a microbrewery on the site.
In emails cited in the report, developers said Zinke had requested they transfer a portion of land for the brewery and that he wanted “exclusive right to produce alcohol” on the site.
“If we can get by the county/city thing in some way, get him his brewery site, and he is able to pay for the development and maintenance of the park at a standard we impose and all agree upon, it might be a path through this,” a developer said in an email to an associate. “He has obviously done his homework on our parking requirements and needs.”
The report said Zinke directed Interior subordinates to help him with “matters related to the (private) project.” That help was arranging a dinner, after work hours, with three of the developers when they visited Washington, D.C., in August 2017, when Zinke was Interior secretary, and making copies of emails and documents related to the development.
Zinke later told investigators from the agency’s ethics office that when he met with the developers, he made it clear that he was no longer speaking for the foundation, and only provided them with information on the park, its mission and property boundaries.
The report also said investigators found that Zinke exchanged 37 text messages with developers on how to respond to inquiries from a “news organization” in April 2018 about Zinke’s role in the Whitefish development. In those communications, Zinke said his wife was the “voice and the decision-maker” on plans for the park.
In June 20128, the news website Politico.com published an extensive story on the land deal and the Zinkes’ role in it.