Interior Dept. Inspector General Claims Former Secretary Zinke Misled Investigators

Posted on: August 24, 2022, 11:13h. 

Last updated on: August 25, 2022, 02:18h.

A report released Wednesday by a watchdog group within the US Department of the Interior (DOI) determined former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to internal investigators. The falsehoods concerned communications he had regarding a proposed casino development in Connecticut.

Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signs an order pertaining to energy independence on March 29, 2017. On Wednesday, the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General released a report stating Zinke and his chief of staff misled investigators about his dealings with several stakeholders tied to a proposed Connecticut casino. (Image: Interior Department)

The 42-page report from the department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) detailed the problem. It said it investigated the DOI’s decision not to approve a plan by the Mohegan Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation to form a joint venture. Their goal was to operate a casino in East Windsor, not far from where MGM Resorts International built a casino resort in Springfield, Mass.

Investigators chose not to focus on the decision at the time because the tribes had initiated a lawsuit into the matter. Instead, they discovered that Zinke and his chief of staff – unnamed in the report, but several media outlets identified him as Scott Hommel – “made statements that presented an inaccurate version of the circumstances in which the DOI made key decisions” regarding the casino decision.

Zinke’s inaccuracies included his dealings with DOI officials, tribal gaming leaders, tribal gaming lobbyists, an unnamed US senator, and others. Investigators came to that determination after several interviews with key stakeholders.

“We also considered information obtained from our review of emails and text messages exchanged with Secretary Zinke, the COS, and others with an interest in the Tribes’ amendments, including text messages and emails between Casino’s lobbyists and executives that were sent contemporaneously with the events they were describing,” the report states.

The report noted that federal employees “have a duty to be honest and candid,” and that failing to do so could lead to their removal.

Zinke stepped down as Interior Secretary on Jan. 2019. His chief of staff left that summer.

Zinke’s Lawyers Blast Report

OIG investigators referred the case to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2018. But that department chose not to pursue the case a year ago.

“We are providing this report to the current Secretary of the Interior for any action deemed appropriate,” the report stated.

A statement from the law firm representing Zinke was included in the report. The firm of Schertler Onorato Mead & Sears called the investigators’ report “inaccurate and flawed.” Lawyers for Zinke also questioned the timing behind the document’s release, noting Zinke is in the process of running for a US House seat in Montana this fall.

“Given the unnecessary delay in completing the report, we find the timing of the release of this report disturbing and improper,” the response stated. “The release of this report undoubtedly runs afoul of Department of Justice guidelines regarding public accusations against a candidate with an election imminent.”

Lawyers also noted that Zinke was acting on legal advice he received from DOI counsel and that a federal judge ruled in his favor in the case.

Requests by Zinke’s attorneys to strike the lack of candor accusations and to delay the release of the report until after the election were refused by the OIG.

In its response to Zinke’s attorneys, OIG defended the time frame for releasing the report. Investigators noted that DOJ declined the referral on July 29, 2021, and proceeded with the review “as an administrative matter” until presenting a draft report a month ago.

Casino Never Happened

Efforts by the two tribes to build a $200 million to $400 million casino in East Windsor were unsuccessful.

Eventually, instead of pursuing that plan, Connecticut and tribal leaders amended their compacts to include sports betting and online casino gaming. Online sports betting and iGaming went live in Connecticut last October.