BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke misused his position to advance a commercial development project that included a microbrewery in his Montana hometown and lied to an agency ethics official about his involvement, federal investigators said Wednesday.
The investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general found that Zinke continued work on the commercial project through a nonprofit foundation in the resort community of Whitefish even after he committed upon taking office to break ties with the foundation.
Zinke, who is now running for Congress, also gave incorrect and incomplete information to an Interior Department ethics official who confronted him over his involvement and ordered agency staff to help him with the project in a misuse of his position, according to the investigator’s report.
The Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation was created by Zinke and others in 2007 to build a community sledding hill in Whitefish, a tourist town about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Glacier National Park and near the Montana-Canada border. The BNSF Railway company donated several acres of land to the foundation in 2008 to establish the park.
After being named Interior secretary in 2017, Zinke agreed to stop providing the foundation with his services.
But after resigning as the foundation’s president and while he was employed as the Interior Secretary, Zinke engaged in “repeated, ongoing substantive negotiations” with developers about the use of foundation property for the commercial project known as 95 Karrow, investigators said.
Zinke’s campaign blasted the investigative report as “a political hit job” and said in a statement that the involvement of Zinke’s family with the foundation led to the restoration of railroad land into a park where children can sled.
“They are proud of the children’s sledding park that dozens of kids use every weekend and countless locals use for exercise every day,” the statement said. Zinke is far outpacing his rivals in fundraising ahead of the June 7 Republican primary for an open Montana congressional seat — the position he held before joining former President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
The department’s inspector general’s office — led by a Trump nominee, Mark Greenblatt — referred the results of the Zinke investigation to prosecutors. Federal prosecutors working under Attorney General Merrick Garland, who was appointed by President Joe Biden, declined to pursue criminal charges last summer, the report said.
Zinke and his wife, Lola, declined interview requests from federal investigators looking into the land deal.
But emails and text messages from others who were involved in the development project show Zinke continued to communicate with developers even after resigning from the foundation in March 2017, according to investigators. The messages were obtained through subpoenas to the developers, who were not named.
“The evidence that we obtained reflected that Secretary Zinke exchanged at least 64 emails and text messages and engaged in multiple phone calls in which he represented the Foundation in negotiations related to the 95 Karrow project,” investigators wrote.
The report added: “He was not simply a passthrough for information to and from the foundation; to the contrary, several of his own messages make clear that he personally acted for or represented the Foundation in connection with the negotiations.”
In one emailed message, a person identified in the investigative report as “developer 1” wrote that Zinke wanted a piece of property transferred to the park for the brewery. The email also said Zinke had asked for the “exclusive right to produce alcohol on 95 Karrow,” according to the report.
Investigators concluded Zinke had “apparent interest in operating a microbrewery on site.” The report did not offer details about the proposed transaction or say who would be the owners of the microbrewery.
Zinke’s Interior Department staff became involved when he directed them to arrange a meeting with three of the project’s developers at his office in August 2017 and later to arrange dinner for the group following a tour of the Lincoln Memorial that was led by Zinke. Staff members also printed documents for Zinke related to 95 Karrow, a violation of rules against using subordinates to perform non-official duties, the investigative report said.
Zinke was questioned about his role in the foundation and the development project in July 2018 by an Interior Department ethics official, following news reports that the foundation had entered an agreement with 95 Karrow’s developers.
During the interview, Zinke denied any substantive involvement in the project, according to the report. The ethics official later said that Zinke “misrepresented” the facts and called Zinke’s statements “disappointing … and very concerning,” according to the report.
Democrats including Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, had requested an investigation into Zinke’s involvement in the project. Grijalva said the findings show Zinke used his office to advance his personal interests and attempted to use the peace park to “force inclusion of a brewery” in the development.
City officials in Whitefish approved revised plans for 95 Karrow in September, the Whitefish Pilot reported. The plans include building a 70-room hotel, a microbrewery, restaurant, offices, shops and 84 residential units. Representatives of developer 95 Karrow LLC did not immediately respond to telephone messages seeking comment.
Investigators found no evidence that Zinke’s actions benefitted the energy company Halliburton — its former chairman, David Lesar, was an investor in the Whitefish development — or that members of Zinke’s staff tried to conceal Zinke’s involvement.
The investigation into the land deal was one of numerous probes of Zinke that began when he was in Trump’s cabinet.
In one case, investigators found that he violated a policy prohibiting non-government employees from riding in government cars after his wife traveled with him, but he said ethics officials approved it. Zinke was cleared of wrongdoing following a complaint that he redrew the boundaries of a national monument in Utah to benefit a state lawmaker and political ally. Another investigation looked into his decision to block two tribes from opening a casino in Connecticut.
During his time overseeing an agency responsible for managing 781,000 square miles (2 million square kilometers) of public lands, Zinke’s broad rollbacks of restrictions on oil and gas drilling were cheered by industry. But they brought a backlash from environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers who accused him of putting corporate profits ahead of preservation.
When he resigned from the Interior Department in 2018, Zinke said politically motivated attacks had created a distraction. In the weeks leading up to departure, the White House concluded Zinke was likely the Cabinet member most vulnerable to investigations led by Democrats who were poised to take the majority in the House, a Trump administration official said at the time.