In yet another example of the pervasive criminality and corruption that the Trump administration has normalized in our nation over the past two years, the public integrity section of the Justice Department is investigating former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke over the veracity of his statements to the department’s inspector general.
The Washington Post is reporting that Zinke – whose resignation took effect yesterday – may have lied to investigators on the inspector general’s team during their probe into his real estate transactions in his native Montana and his participation in the review of a casino project proposal by Native American tribes in Connecticut.
The investigators became convinced that Zinke misled them during the course of their inquiry and referred the matter to the Department of Justice to determine whether Zinke faces criminal liability for his false testimony, according to three people familiar with the matter.
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The public integrity division of the Justice Department has already begun to question witnesses to analyze Zinke’s prior statements under questioning by the inspector general’s investigators.
According to The Post:
“A spokesman for Zinke said Zinke voluntarily participated in two inspector general interviews about the Connecticut tribal matter and “to the best of his knowledge answered all questions truthfully.” The spokesman said Zinke had not been contacted by the Justice Department and that disclosures about the matter violated inspector general and Justice Department protocols.”
The newspaper describes the Justice Department’s interest in the matter to be “significant,” which indicates that they have determined that Zinke’s statements were “suspect and warranted further scrutiny.” However, with the investigation still underway, they have yet to decide whether the matter merits prosecution.
“The crime of making false statements can be difficult to prove because it requires investigators to show a person “knowingly and willfully” lied, rather than simply misstated a fact. Zinke’s resignation, too, could make him a less appealing target for prosecutors,” The Post wrote.
Zinke resigned his Interior Department post after the multiple investigations into his conduct in office raised an intense public furor. He also reportedly fell out of President Trump’s favor for refusing to run against Montana Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) during the midterm elections and for mishandling the administration’s plan to expand offshore drilling.
The substance of exactly what Zinke lied about to investigators is still unclear at this point, although people close to the investigation say it does not concern the sweetheart land deal he negotiated with the chairman of Haliburton in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, a deal that raised questions of conflict of interest.
More detail is available about the Interior Department’s involvement in the dispute over the Connecticut casino project, however. The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes sought to jointly operate a casino in East Windsor in that state but needed Interior Department approval to operate outside of tribal lands, despite approval by state officials.
Because the new casino project would compete with their existing property just 12 miles over the border in Springfield, Massachusetts, MGM Resorts International lobbied against the approval of the tribe’s plans. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Interior Department was set to approve the tribes’ proposal before abruptly reversing course and refusing to do so.
A subsequent lawsuit by one of the tribes charged that “the Department ultimately buckled under undue political pressure” from two Republican members of Congress, Senator Dean Heller and Representative Mark Amodei, both of whom represent Nevada where MGM Resorts International wields substantial influence as a major employer in that state.
Court filings allege that “Senator Heller directly pressured Secretary Zinke to do what was necessary to stop the Tribes’ joint venture casino project during a private dinner at a steakhouse in Las Vegas, on or about July 30, 2017.”
Speculation is that it was in his questioning over the politicization of the decision-making process in mulling the approval of the Native American casino project that Zinke misled investigators.
Zinke’s additional legal problems after leaving the administration are just the tip of the iceberg, with the probes of the corruption during the first two years of the Trump regime by the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives sure to generate a multiplicity of additional investigations shortly. Hopefully, congressional Democrats can actually drain the swamp that Trump promised to, but instead vastly expanded.
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Original reporting by Matt Zapotosky, Josh Dawsey, Juliet Eilperin, and Lisa Rein at The Washington Post.