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Investigators Say Trump’s Former Interior Secretary Misused His Position For Personal Gain

Investigators Say Trump’s Former Interior Secretary Misused His Position For Personal Gain

Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke misused his position to advance a commercial development project that included a microbrewery in his Montana hometown and lied to an agency ethics official about his involvement, according to a report by federal investigators released Wednesday. Zinke is currently a candidate in the June Republican primary for an open Montana Congressional seat, a position he held prior to joining former Donald Trump’s cabinet.

The investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general found that Zinke continued work on the commercial project through a nonprofit foundation in the resort community of Whitefish even after he committed upon taking office to break ties with the foundation. The report also said that Zinke gave incorrect and incomplete information to an Interior Department ethics official who confronted him over his involvement, and that Zinke ordered Interior Department staff to help him with the project in a misuse of his position.

The Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation was created by Zinke and others in 2007 to build a community sledding hill in Whitefish, a tourist town about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Glacier National Park and near the Montana-Canada border. The BNSF Railway company donated several acres of land to the foundation in 2008 to establish the park. After being named Interior secretary in 2017, Zinke agreed to cut ties with the foundation and to stop providing it with his services. Investigators concluded Zinke had “apparent interest in operating a microbrewery on-site” but the report did not give more details about the proposed transaction and who was involved.

But after resigning as the foundation’s president and while he was employed as the Interior Secretary, Zinke engaged in “repeated, ongoing substantive negotiations” with developers about the use of foundation property for a commercial project known as 95 Karrow, investigators said. The project included a potential microbrewery. The department’s inspector general’s office — led by Inspector General Mark Greenblatt, a Trump nominee — referred the results of the Zinke investigation to federal prosecutors for potential prosecution. But the prosecutors who work for Attorney General Merrick Garland, appointed by President Joe Biden, declined to pursue criminal charges in the summer of 2021, according to the investigative report.

Zinke’s Interior Department staff became involved when he directed them to arrange a meeting with three of the project’s developers at his office in August 2017 and later to arrange dinner for the group following a tour of the Lincoln Memorial that was led by Zinke. Zinke’s staff also printed documents for him related to 95 Karrow, a violation of rules against using subordinates to perform non-official duties, the investigative report said. Zinke was questioned about those interactions while in his role in the foundation and the development project in July 2018 by an Interior Department ethics official. The interview followed news reports that the foundation had entered an agreement with 95 Karrow’s developers. During the interview, Zinke denied any substantive involvement in the project, according to the report. The ethics official later said that Zinke had “misrepresented” the facts and he called Zinke’s statements “disappointing…and very concerning,” according to the report.

The investigation into the land deal was one of the numerous probes of Zinke that began when he was in Trump’s cabinet. In another case, investigators found that he violated a policy prohibiting non-government employees from riding in government cars after his wife traveled with him, but he said ethics officials approved it. Zinke was cleared of wrongdoing following a complaint that he redrew the boundaries of a national monument in Utah to benefit a state lawmaker and political ally.

 

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