Then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, left, is greeted by Chief Lynn Malerba of the Mohegan Tribe and then-Chairman Kevin Brown of the Mohegan Tribe, at the National Congress of American Indians mid-year conference at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut on June 13, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Former Secretary Ryan Zinke under grand jury investigation for tribal debacle

The Trump administration's dealings with Indian Country have been characterized as one disaster after another and one of them appears to be catching up with Ryan Zinke, the former Secretary of the Interior.

A federal grand jury has been looking into Zinke's connection to a stalled tribally-owned casino in Connecticut, The Washington Post reported. That confirms what multiple sources told Indianz.Com when the former secretary announced his resignation about two months ago.

At the time, the sources told Indianz.Com the grand jury was interested in hearing from Bureau of Indian Affairs officials and others at the Department of the Interior with knowledge about the Trump administration's failure to approve gaming agreements for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe. The Post confirms as much with its new story.

"Prosecutors have also asked witnesses — who include Interior officials — about what sort of advice they provided Zinke in the course of his review of the application," the story reads.

The trust relationship at work? A document obtained by POLITICO could explain why the Trump administration has failed to approve gaming agreements for two tribes, if only anyone were able to read the heavily-redacted memo.

The Post also affirms its prior reporting about the nature of the inquiry. Prosecutors want to determine whether Zinke lied to the investigators -- the Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Interior had opened a probe into the matter and the former secretary has acknowledged that he sat down for two interviews in connection with the controversy.

The Inspector General began its investigation in the spring of 2018 but the tribes became concerned when it never appeared to advance to a stage where a report would be issued. By the fall, The Post disclosed a reason why -- the matter had been referred to the Department of Justice for possible criminal action.

But the grand jury isn't Zinke's only legal concern. A federal judge last week gave permission for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the state of Connecticut to pursue, as part of a civil lawsuit, whether the former secretary succumbed to "significant political pressure" by refusing to approve the agreements.

The Mohegan Tribe was also a part of the litigation but had to drop out after the BIA mysteriously approved its gaming agreement in June 2018. The decision was extremely unusual -- under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, it should have been made within 45 days of being received in Washington but instead it was 10 months late.

Zinke's handling of the matter represents another instance of the Trump administration's questionable dealings with Indian Country. Both tribes had been told more than once by officials and employees at Interior that their agreements were going to be approved once submitted to the BIA.

The tribes even hosted an honoring ceremony for one of those officials -- Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason -- during the mid-yar session of the National Congress of American Indians in June 2017. Zinke also was honored at the event, which took place on Mohegan homelands in Connecticut.

So when the tribes finally submitted their agreements on August 2, 2017, they expected a positive decision 45 days later. But instead of providing them with an answer, Zinke on September 15, 2017, sent both tribes a latter that offered "vague, cursory reasoning" for the inaction, Judge Rudolph Contreras wrote in a decision last Friday.

Attempts to figure out what happened between June and September, however, have not been entirely productive. Citing the litigation, spokespersons at the BIA and DOI have declined to offer comments on the record.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, POLITICO obtained a number of key documents -- only to find out that almost the entire contents had been redacted. On one significant memo, all that was left were the names of three BIA individuals -- all of whom happen to be tribal citizens -- indicating that someone at a higher-level was likely pulling the strings, according to the ongoing lawsuit.

"Secretary Zinke visited the White House to meet with Deputy Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn who, exerting executive-level pressure, requested the department to not approve the tribal-state agreement," the Mashantucket Tribe and the state of Connecticut write in their updated complaint, The New London Day reported.

The legal development opens the door for the tribe and the state to obtain key documents and depose key players -- maybe even Zinke -- under oath. Cason is also of potential interest, as is Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who arrived at Interior after the June 2017 honoring but before the "vague, cursory" letter in which the BIA failed to take action.

Bernhardt has since been tapped by President Donald Trump to lead the department. In an appearance before NCAI's winter session in Washington last week, he wasn't honored, but he promised to honor the federal government's trust and treaty responsibilities.

"I want to be a partner with you ... and I want you to hold me accountable," Bernhardt said last Wednesday.

"Because when I give you my word, it's real," Bernhardt said to applause.

Read More on the Story
Grand jury is examining whether former interior secretary Ryan Zinke lied to federal investigators (The Washington Post February 22, 2019)
Amended suit details Interior's reversal on tribal-state agreement (The New London Day February 22, 2019)

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