The Washington Post is reporting that according to individuals “familiar with the matter,” the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General has referred to the Justice Department allegations that Ryan Zinke, head of the Interior Department, used his position for private gain. The referral was evidently of only one of the several probes being conducted by the IG’s office into Zinke’s affairs and how he has conducted himself in office. The IG’s office only refers cases of this type to the Justice Department if they have determined that there is a possibility of criminal charges.
Zinke has been trying to replace the acting Inspector General at Interior with a political appointee. In this context, the referral to the Justice Department makes perfect sense. According to Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Western Priorities. “If Interior’s inspector general is unable to hold Secretary Zinke accountable without political interference, it’s time for career prosecutors at the Justice Department to take over,” she said.
There are at least three probes into Zinke’s behavior. It is unclear which of these was referred to the Justice Department. One set of allegations involves Zinke’s involvement in a Montana land deal. The land deal, backed by the chairman of the oil services firm Halliburton, involves the development of two parcels of land owned by Zinke and his wife. A number of Halliburton’s operations are affected by decisions and policies made by the Department of the Interior, “…including rules on how oil and gas drilling must be conducted, and which public lands and federal waters are open to energy exploration and development.” Zinke has no business being involved in any way with a company which is affected by Interior policies much less involved in a way that might involve personal gain.
In addition, the Inspector General’s office is looking at Zinke’s involvement in a decision by Interior not to approve a casino deal in Connecticut. Career staffers had approved the application of Native America tribes to run a casino which would have competed with an MGM Resorts International casino. After MGM and two Nevada Senators lobbied against the deal, Zinke refused to sign off on it.
Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Ron Wyden (Ore.) urged Zinke in a letter “to immediately cease any efforts to use the office of the Secretary of the Interior for personal gain and fully reimburse the public for your private use of public resources.” In the letter, Democratic Senators asked why Zinke had invited former donors as official guests last year on a trip to California’s Channel Islands and questioned Zinke’s request that staffers look into designating his wife as a department volunteer.
Conveniently, Zinke may leave office after the midterm elections.
See Eilperin, Jiliet and Josh Dawsey (10/30/18) “Zinke’s own agency watchdog just referred him to the Justice Department.” The Washington Post.