Ryan Zinke's Problems Aren't Over Yet

Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Someone thinks Ryan Zinke might be kind of corrupt.

The Justice Department is looking into whether the former Interior Secretary lied to investigators from the Interior inspector general’s office during a pair of internal probes, the Washington Post reported on Thursday. Zinke, who departed the Trump administration crayon-in-hand on Wednesday, confirmed via a spokesperson that he previously sat down with investigators but wouldn’t speak to the report that they caught him lying. If you’re even halfway aware of his run at Interior, this basically sounds par for the course.

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The first case that’s under review comes from Montana and is your fairly standard, straightforward grift. The chairman of oil giant Halliburton, David Lesar, randomly wanted to buy up and develop a ton of land in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, MT. Included in that development would be a micro-brewery, the kind that Zinke had wanted and been lobbying for in the town for years. (Lesar, a protégé of Dick Cheney, retired as Halliburton chairman at the end of 2018.)

Seeing as how Zinke and the Trump administration have been trying to sell off every possible bit of land to oil tycoons from the moment they took power, the coincidence of Halliburton buying up land in Zinke’s town and gifting him the very business he wanted felt icky to the Interior’s inspector general, sparking an investigation.

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The second case is a bit more complex, but all the more enraging. This one comes to us from Connecticut, where the Mashantucket Pequot tribe and Mohegan tribe were attempting to open a casino in East Windsor. Native nations are allowed to operate casinos under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, which allows tribes the right to either open the facilities on their own reservation land or on land held in a trust by the federal government. The two tribes currently operate two casinos in Connecticut separately and were attempting to open a third together.

Because the casino was to be built outside of tribal lands, according to the Connecticut Mirror, the tribes first had to obtain the approval of the state legislature, which they did in 2017. Gov. Dannel Malloy and the Connecticut legislature agreed to allow the opening of a commercial casino, with two major stipulations—first, the tribes had to share the money they made off slot machines; and second, the federal government had to approve the amending of their gaming compact. Having agreed to share the slot revenues, the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot sent off their request to the Department of the Interior.

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For over half a year, Zinke’s department responded with radio silence, even though the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act mandates that the Interior must respond to a tribe’s claims within 45 days. The prolonged unresponsiveness forced the National Congress of American Indians to call on the Interior (specifically, the Bureau of Indian Affairs) to approve the change.

The reason for this silence, though, became clear in February 2018. MGM Resorts, the famous casino and hotel company, was planning its own casino in Springfield, MA, located just 12 miles from East Windsor. As reported by Politico in February, Zinke and senior officials within Interior exchanged numerous phone calls and emails with MGM employees while the tribes waited for a response.

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While the Politico report was only able to confirm that the exchanges between Zinke and MGM occurred and not what they covered, the blanks were fairly easy to fill in—MGM is a lobbying giant in the gambling world, and it purportedly used its war chest to lean on Zinke and get Interior to delay ruling on the tribal casinos so that it could get started on its own.

(For context, white gamblers getting mad at Native peoples for trying to make money isn’t exactly new. President Donald Trump offered up several racist remarks when confronting the Pequots in 1993 over a casino he hoped to build, infamously saying in front of Congress that, “They don’t look like Indians to me,” and adding that they “lucked out with a location between New York and Boston.”)

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A federal lawsuit filed against Zinke by the Pequot fell flat after the judge found a loophole that excluded the Pequot from being granted the rights provided by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. This led to their case being shelved while MGM proceeded with its construction; for a moment, it seemed as though the grifters had won out.

Thankfully, the obviousness of it all prompted an internal investigation by the Interior’s inspector general into whether Zinke was an unbiased moderator or a tool that was easily bought by MGM. And in case this isn’t already insane enough, various reports in October said that Zinke had fired DOI inspector general Mary Kendall and replaced her with Suzanne Israel Tufts, a former Trump campaign lawyer and a political appointee HUD, but the move ultimately never happened and Tufts resigned from HUD.

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The inspector general has now been conducting follow-up interviews with folks involved in both the Montana and the Connecticut cases, trying to poke holes in the accounts provided to them in their first sit-down with Zinke. If Zinke’s cover-up ability is anywhere close to his handwriting skills, the sleazeball will be in court by the end of the month.

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