The Justice Department is reportedly investigating Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke after a probe into his conduct was referred by the Interior Department’s internal watchdog.
Interior’s inspector general is currently conducting multiple investigations into Zinke possible use of his office for personal gain, including a Montana land deal backed by the chairman of oil giant Halliburton and a decision not to grant two tribes approval for a casino to be operated in Connecticut. One of the investigations has been referred to the Justice Department, the Washington Post reported Tuesday, although anonymous sources did not clarify which one and neither agency offered comment to the Post.
Zinke told CNN he hasn’t been contacted directly by the Justice Department. “I follow all rules, procedures, regulations and most importantly the law,” he said. “This is another politically driven investigation that has no merit.”
Organizations critical of the Trump administration appeared to welcome the news.
“The mere possibility that an Interior Secretary’s behavior could result in a federal criminal investigation is deeply disturbing,” said Chris Saeger, the executive director of Western Values Project, in a statement. “One thing is clear: no one is above the law and Secretary Zinke needs to be held accountable for any wrongdoing or misconduct.”
The Interior Department’s watchdog announced in June that it would investigate Zinke’s land deal. A Politico report that month found that a foundation established by both Zinke and his wife was closely tied a multi-million dollar real estate deal, one funded by Halliburton chairman David Lesar. Zinke oversees some 500 million acres of public lands, home to oil drilling opportunities actively sought by companies like Halliburton.
Following queries, Interior’s Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall told House Democrats her department would examine “reported ongoing involvement in and use of taxpayer resources to advance land developments in Whitefish, Montana” — Zinke’s hometown — and later confirmed that the investigation had been opened in mid-July.
The watchdog is also looking into accusations from two tribes, the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, that Zinke blocked their plans to expand in Connecticut, a move that could benefit gambling giant MGM Resorts International. MGM has a number of Republican supporters in Congress, and lobbyists associated with the corporation have reportedly reached out to Zinke and other Interior officials, seemingly in connection with efforts to stall the tribes’ plans for a third casino.
Zinke has also been accused of seeking to redraw the boundaries for the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah as a favor to a state lawmaker.
The inspector general only refers cases to the Justice Department in situations in which the watchdog sees potential criminal violations. Following the referral, the Justice Department must decide whether or not to pursue a criminal investigation into Zinke’s actions.
According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), at least 15 federal investigations have been opened into Zinke’s actions as of August 2018. While some have cleared the secretary of wrongdoing, a number have closed due to either a lack of cooperation from the Interior Department or insufficiently maintained records.
This is a developing story and will be updated.