The Department of the Interior Inspector General (IG) has referred an ongoing probe of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to the Justice Department for a potential criminal investigation, The Washington Post reports.
The IG investigated Zinke for a 2008 land deal in Montana and for denying two tribes’ petition to build and operate a casino in Connecticut. It’s unclear which investigation was referred to the DOJ. (RELATED: Ryan Zinke Under Investigation For Montana Land Deal)
The DOJ is looking into whether Zinke “used his office to help himself,” a senior White House official told WaPo.
In 2008, a nonprofit Zinke started received a land donation from BNSF Railway in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana. Zinke pledged to turn the land into a “children’s sledding park and community open space in a setting that recognizes the contributions of the railroad and the veterans to the community,” Zinke told Politico in a statement.
Next to the donated plot, former-Halliburton chairman David Lesar is funding the development of a commercial center, 95 Karrow, that will include a hotel, various shops and a microbrewery, Politico reports.
In 2017, Zinke turned the nonprofit over to his wife, Lolita Zinke, to avoid any conflicts of interest as secretary of the interior. Lolita signed a shared-use agreement between the nonprofit and the developer of 95 Karrow, Casey Malmquist, to build a parking lot on nonprofit land to be used by the eventual park and 95 Karrow, according to Politico.
Lesar, his son and Malmquist met with Zinke in his office after he became secretary. Zinke gave them a private tour of the Lincoln Memorial and took them out to dinner, The Washington Post reports. The group discussed the topics of 95 Karrow and the park at dinner, but did not have an official meeting about it, Malmquist told WaPo.
Malmquist has denied all allegations of impropriety or corruption.
“It is a good project that went through all the right channels,” Malmquist told Montana’s Flathead Beacon. “It just happens to be that Dave Lesar is the former CEO of Halliburton and Ryan Zinke is the peace park guy. That is the extent of it. There’s no corruption.”
Zinke refused to sign off on the proposed construction of a casino in Connecticut 12 miles from an MGM resort. The casino was proposed by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes.
Since the denial, the Mashantucket have accused Zinke of denying their request on political grounds and has asked a federal court to revive a lawsuit against the federal government over the matter.
The decision “was the product of improper political influence and was therefore ‘arbitrary and capricious,'” the Mashantucket court filing says, according to Politico.
The Department of the Interior did not respond to a request for comment.
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