BILLINGS, Mont. – Former US Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke abused his position to promote a commercial development project that included a microbrewery in his hometown of Montana, and lied to the agency’s ethics officer about his involvement, federal investigators said Wednesday.
The investigation of the Inspector General of the Ministry of Internal Affairs found that Zinke continued to work on a commercial project through a nonprofit fund in the Whitefish resort community even after he took office to sever ties with the foundation.
Zinke also gave incorrect and incomplete information to the Ethics Officer of the Department of the Interior, who confronted him about his involvement and ordered agency staff to assist him in the project in abusing his position, the investigator’s report said.
The Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation was established by Zinke and others in 2007 to build a communal toboggan run in Whitefish, a tourist town about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Glacier National Park and near the Montana-Canada border. The BNSF railway company transferred several hectares of land to the fund in 2008 to create a park.
After being appointed Minister of the Interior in 2017, Zinke agreed to stop providing the fund with his services.
But after resigning as president of the foundation and so far he has been worked as Minister of the InteriorZinke was involved in “repeated, ongoing substantive negotiations” with developers about using the fund’s assets for a commercial project known as 95 Karrow, investigators said.
Zinke is a Republican primary candidate on June 7 for an open seat in the Montana Congress, a position he held before entering the office of former President Donald Trump.
His campaign called the report a “political blow” and said in a statement that the Zinke family’s involvement in the fund had led to the restoration of railway land to a park where children could sled.
“They are proud of the children’s sledge park, which is used by dozens of children every weekend, and countless locals use it daily for sports,” the company said in a statement.
The office of the department’s inspector general, headed by Trump’s candidate Mark Greenblatt, passed the results of the investigation to Zinka to the prosecutor’s office. Federal prosecutors, led by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, dropped the criminal charges last summer, the report said.
Zinke and his wife Lola have turned down requests for interviews from federal investigators studying the land deal.
According to the investigation, emails and text messages from others involved in the development of the project show that Zinke continued to communicate with developers even after leaving the fund in March 2017. Messages were received through subpoenas to unnamed developers.
“The evidence we have received shows that Secretary Zinke exchanged at least 64 e-mails and text messages and participated in several phone calls in which he represented the Foundation in negotiations on the 95 Carrow Project,” the investigators wrote.
The report adds: “It was not just a passage for information to and from the fund; on the contrary, several of his own communications make it clear that he personally acted or represented the Fund in connection with the negotiations. ”
In an e-mail, a person named in the investigation report as “Developer 1” wrote that Zinke wanted part of the property to be transferred to a park for the brewery. The email also said Zinke had asked for “the exclusive right to produce alcohol at 95 Karrow,” the report said.
Investigators concluded that Zinke had “a clear interest in running a microbrewery on site.” The report does not offer details of the proposed deal and does not say who will be the owner of the microbrewery.
Zinke’s Home Office staff got involved when he ordered them to arrange a meeting with three project developers at his office in August 2017 and then organize a dinner for the group after a tour of the Lincoln Memorial led by Zinke. Officers also printed for Zinke documents related to 95 Karrow, a violation of rules that do not allow the use of subordinates to perform informal duties, according to the investigation report.
In July 2018, an employee of the Ethics Department of the Department of the Interior asked Zinke about his role in the foundation and the development project after reports in the news that the foundation had entered into an agreement with 95 Karrow developers.
During the interview, Zinke denied any significant involvement in the project, the report said. An ethics official later said Zinke had “told” the facts, and called Zinke’s statements “disappointing … and very disturbing”, the report said.
Democrats, including Arizona MP Raul Grialva, chairman of the House of Representatives’ natural resources committee, have called for an investigation into Zinka’s involvement in the project. Grialva said the results show that Zinke used his office to promote his personal interests and tried to use the Peace Park to “get the brewery involved” in development.
City officials in Whitefish approved revised plans for 95 Karrow in September, the Whitefish Pilot reported. The plans are to build a hotel with 70 rooms, a microbrewery, a restaurant, offices, shops and 84 houses. Representatives of the developer Ltd. 95 Carrow did not immediately respond to telephone messages asking for comment.
Investigators found no evidence that Zinke’s actions benefited the Halliburton energy company – former chairman of which David Lesar was an investor in the development of Whitefish – or that Zinke’s staff members tried to hide Zinke’s involvement.
An investigation into the land deal was one of Zinke’s many probes it started when he was in Trump’s office.
In one case, investigators found he had violated a policy that barred non-state employees from driving state cars after his wife drove with him, but he said ethics officials approved it. Zinke was cleared of wrongdoing after a complaint that he redrawn the boundaries of a national monument in Utah in favor of a state MP and political ally. Another investigation was considering his decision to ban two tribes from opening a casino in Connecticut.
At a time when he ran the agency responsible for managing 781,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) of state land, Zinke’s extensive setbacks of oil and gas drilling restrictions were shaken by the industry. But they provoked an unpleasant reaction from environmental groups and Democrat lawmakers, who accused him of making corporate profits above saving.
When he left the Department of the Interior in 2018, Zinke said politically motivated attacks were a distraction. A few weeks before leaving, the White House concluded that Zinke was probably the most vulnerable member of the cabinet for Democrat-led investigations that were ready to get a majority in the House of Representatives, a spokesman for the Trump administration said at the time.
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