Ryan Zinke serves as Secretary of the Interior in the Trump administration. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Secretary Zinke faces scrutiny over dealings at Interior

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who spoke briefly to tribal leaders last week, is facing even more scrutiny of his activities since joining the Trump administration.

According to multiple news reports, Zinke has been referred to the Department of Justice in connection with one of the many investigations into his dealings at the Department of the Interior. One White House official told The Washington Post that the probe was about whether he “used his office to help himself” while another source told The New York Times that it was likely linked to a land deal in his home state of Montana.

Despite the vague details, Zinke is pushing back against the news, POLITICO reported. The Secretary has not been contacted about the alleged investigation, which is said to have been originated from a referral by the Office of Inspector General at his own department, a private attorney said.

"The Secretary has done nothing wrong," attorney Stephen Ryan told POLITICO on behalf of Zinke.

Zinke has faced at least 17 investigations since joining the Trump administration in March 2017. At least two of them are connected to his handling of Indian issues, including the reassignments of senior officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a tribal gaming project in Connecticut.

In April, the Office of Inspector General released a report about the reassignments, which also affected senior officials throughout Interior. While Zinke's staff did not always follow procedures in handling the matter, the investigation failed to uncover any actionable wrongdoing.

The investigation into the Connecticut casino project apparently remains open. It was initiated in April but it is not clear why a report has yet to be released even though one aspect of the dispute has been resolved -- the BIA published notice of a gaming agreement for the Mohegan Tribe while refusing to do the same for the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation.

Zinke addressed the National Congress of American Indians last Monday as tribal leaders met for the organization's 75th annual convention in Denver, Colorado. He did not speak very long as he was mainly there to introduce Tara Sweeney, the new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs.

"It's a great honor to be back at @NCAI1944. We have made a lot of great progress at @USIndianAffairs to combat opioids and are working to improve safety for Native women and girls," Zinke wrote in a post on Twitter.

That same say, the Inspector General released another report into Zinke's activities. It found that he allowed his wife to travel in government vehicles despite a policy against non-government employees from doing so.

"The Zinkes reimbursed costs associated with Lolita Zinke’s travel in DOI vehicles when required," a summary of the report stated. The full report was provided to Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who is Zinke's subordinate.

Sweeney, who is the first Alaska Native to serve as the Assistant Secretary, addressed NCAI for the first time since joining the Trump administration in late July. She delivered a prepared speech and also responded to numerous issued raised by tribal leaders.

Read More on the Story
Zinke’s own agency watchdog just referred him to the Justice Department (The Washington Post October 31, 2018)
Sources: Justice Department investigating Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (CNN October 31, 2018)
Inquiry Into Ryan Zinke Land Deal Is Said to Escalate (The New York Times October 31, 2018)
Zinke attorney lashes back amid reports of Justice referral (POLITICO October 30, 2018)

An Opinion
Jennifer Rubin: Another Cabinet official is under an ethics cloud — yet Congress does nothing (The Washington Post October 31, 2018)

Office of the Inspector General Reports:
Alleged Abuse of Position by Secretary Zinke (October 22, 2018)
Reassignment of Senior Executives at the U.S. Department of the Interior (April 11, 2018)

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