Former US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is dismissing allegations raised by the inspector general of the federal agency he once oversaw claiming he misused his Cabinet-level position. Zinke led the agency between March 1, 2017, through January 2, 2019.
A recent probe conducted by US Department of the Interior (DOI) Inspector General Mark Greenblatt’s office concluded that Zinke acted inappropriately while serving in President Donald Trump’s administration. Investigators additionally said Zinke, a former US representative who represented his home state of Montana and is now seeking reelection to Congress, lied to agency officials.
Zinke was Interior Secretary when the DOI dragged its feet in approving a tribal casino in Connecticut. The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes sought to jointly construct a casino in East Windsor, Ct. But after state officials and then-Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) signed off on the roughly $300 million project, Interior refused to approve the state’s revised gaming compacts to fully authorize the development.
The tribes and state wanted the East Windsor casino in order to stop casino money from flowing north across the Connecticut-Massachusetts border to nearby MGM Springfield, a $960 million integrated resort that opened in August of 2018.
The DOI typically responds with 45 days of receipt of a new or revised state gaming compact. But Interior under Zinke refrained from ruling on the Mashantucket and Mohegan revisions.
Critics said MGM Resorts successfully lobbied the Trump administration and DOI to not weigh in on the project.
The DOI in March of 2019 — just two months after Zinke resigned as Interior Secretary — finally approved the compacts. But by then, the tribes had abandoned the project in favor of reaching iGaming and sports betting privileges with Gov. Ned Lamont (D).
The current Interior Department allegations stem from a public park Zinke’s charity — The Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation — helped build and open in 2007 in Zinke’s hometown of Billings, Montana. Zinke pledged to disassociate from the foundation upon taking over the DOI, but inspector general officials believe he did not uphold that pledge.
Zinke’s foundation was donated land to build the park. Adjacent to the community greenspace was an abandoned mill. A real estate development firm with ties to Halliburton Chairman David Lesar acquired the mill property and petitioned the Whitefish City Council to approve the construction of a hotel, microbrewery, art gallery, and office space.
Zinke allegedly played an active role in forming stipulations the city would demand of the commercial marketplace in exchange for the zoning change. The enterprise ultimately agreed to build a parking lot serving both the park and the business development.
Zinke Denies Misconduct
Zinke’s campaign rejected the allegations made in the DOI inspector general’s report. Calling it a “political hit job,” Zinke staffers said the conclusion was based on “false information.”
The Department of Justice under Attorney General Merrick Garland opted against pursuing criminal charges.
Zinke is hoping to fulfill a new US House seat afforded to Montana from the 2020 US Census. Zinke is one of four Republicans that have declared their candidacies for the November 8, 2022, election.
There hasn’t been any polling on the race to date.
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