The Justice Department’s handling of a former Trump Cabinet secretary, Ryan Zinke, paints quite a different picture. Indeed, it suggests a real reluctance to pursue even what would seem to be a strong case for prosecution.
On Wednesday, a long-awaited report from the Interior Department’s inspector general found that Zinke lied and misled his way through an inquiry into potential misdeeds during his time as secretary of that department.
Crucially, this is the second time the IG has reached such a conclusion about Zinke, who is favored to win a congressional seat in Montana this fall. And also crucially, it’s the second time the Biden Justice Department has declined to prosecute the case.
The new report lays out the ways in which Zinke allegedly lied and hid the truth about his handling of a casino operating matter in 2017. Zinke ultimately declined to make a decision, returning proposed amendments that the would-be operators needed to declare that their plan to jointly operate the casino wouldn’t violate existing gaming agreements. He did so after extensive lobbying against the project — lobbying that Zinke downplayed to the point of burying the truth, Inspector General Mark Greenblatt found.
And the evidence is compelling:
- Zinke claimed he and an unnamed U.S. senator — apparently then-Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) — hadn’t discussed the project in detail and that, to the extent they did, the senator didn’t ask him to take a position on the subject. It turns out the senator told investigators that he was clear that he opposed the project and that they spoke at length. “There was no confusion in our conversations,” the senator said.
- Zinke claimed he hadn’t met with lobbyists and casino representatives who opposed the project, but emails and other documents showed these people had regular contact with Zinke as part of an effort to get him to deny the application.
- Zinke claimed he based his decision not on the feedback of that U.S. senator or those opposed to the project, but on advice from attorneys at the Interior Department. But the attorneys said they didn’t advise him on the matter or approve his ultimate action.
Despite Zinke downplaying the role of others besides attorneys in the Interior Department, the evidence showed a lobbyist attended a dinner with Zinke at the White House the night before Zinke returned the amendments and told a casino executive that Zinke “thinks he helped us.” The senator also recounted a lengthy conversation the day the decision was made, in which he “directly” told Zinke he shouldn’t approve the amendments. Zinke also doubled down when confronted with the evidence contradicting him.
The inspector general concluded this wasn’t just a matter of a faulty memory, either.
“In short, Secretary Zinke was contacted repeatedly, personally, and directly in the days leading up to and the day of the final decision, and it strains credulity to conclude that Secretary Zinke simply forgot or misspoke when he was interviewed by OIG investigators less than 1 year after the events in question,” the report said. “This is particularly true here, as Secretary Zinke was expressly given the opportunity to correct his statements during his second interview with the OIG.”
It might not be surprising that the Trump Justice Department didn’t act on these findings when the inspector general referred it for potential prosecution in 2018 — given its handling of legal matters involving other Trump allies. But the Biden Justice Department also formally closed the matter last summer after reviewing it for six months.
And notably, it’s the second time the Biden DOJ has passed on pursuing Zinke for allegedly lying to investigators. Another IG report released earlier this year found Zinke had allegedly lied about his involvement in a land deal in his hometown of Whitefish, Mont., which he stood to benefit from personally. Zinke claimed his role was minimal and that a meeting he held with the project’s developers at the Interior Department’s headquarters was “purely social.”
The evidence, again, showed something else entirely, as The Post’s Anna Phillips and Lisa Rein reported in February:
Email and text message exchanges show he communicated with the developers 64 times between August 2017 and July 2018 to discuss the project’s design, the use of his foundation’s land as a parking lot, and his interest in operating a brewery on the site.
“These communications, examples of which are set forth below, show that Secretary Zinke played an extensive, direct, and substantive role in representing the Foundation during negotiations with the 95 Karrow project developers,” Inspector General Mark Greenblatt’s office wrote.
Zinke “was not simply a passthrough for information,” the report said. “He personally acted for or represented the Foundation in connection with the negotiations.”
Not only had Zinke allegedly misled investigators, the inspector general found, but his involvement in the project itself broke federal ethics rules. Zinke had told federal officials he would resign from the foundation and not do work on its behalf.
Prosecutors declined to press charges in this case around the same time — last summer.
Zinke has so far escaped legal jeopardy for these and other ethics investigations that dogged his tenure as secretary and ultimately forced his resignation in December 2018. He’s now running for Congress and narrowly won the GOP nomination for one of Montana’s two House seats, thanks in part to Trump’s endorsement.
To the extent the Biden Justice Department is hellbent on taking down the Trump team, Zinke would seem like relatively easy pickings. But proving someone lied to investigators is a high bar, and the Biden Justice Department has apparently determined that pursuing Zinke isn’t worth it.
Not that it’s stopping Zinke from claiming persecution. In response to the report, he called it a “political hit job” by the Biden administration, citing the report’s proximity to the 2022 midterms. He did so even though Greenblatt was a Trump appointee, and even though the delay in releasing the report was in large part because the Trump Justice Department spent more than two years reviewing Greenblatt’s criminal referral.
Greenblatt said he followed all relevant procedures and argues that more than 60 days before an election is plenty of time. He also said that withholding the report would itself be political.
Of course, if the Biden administration really wanted to hit Zinke, they could’ve gone quite a bit further.