Former Interior chief Zinke lied during the casino investigation

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to investigators about conversations he had with lobbyists, lawmakers and other officials about an effort by two Indian tribes to operate a casino in Connecticut, the department’s internal watchdog said on Thursday. Wednesday.

Zinke, now a Republican candidate for a new House seat in western Montana, made statements to investigators “with the general intent to mislead them,” a report by Inspector General Mark Greenblatt said.

Both Zinke and his former chief of staff, Scott Hommel, “presented an inaccurate version of the circumstances under which (Interior) made key decisions” about the casino project, the report said. “As a result, we have concluded that Secretary Zinke and (Hommel) did not comply with their duty of candor when questioned.”

Zinke’s campaign could not immediately be reached for comment. But a letter from Zinke’s attorney, included in the report, said the finding that Zinke lacked candor was “wrong and without merit.”

In comments to investigators, Zinke called the timing of the report — less than three months before the November election — “disturbing and inappropriate.” He asked that the release of the report be delayed until after the election, a request Greenblatt rejected.

In an Aug. 3 letter from the law firm Schertler, Onorato, Mead & Sears, Zinke’s attorney called the IG’s report “distorted and misleading” and said it “does not make clear that Secretary Zinke did not adopt the position of any lobbyist for or against. the project (casino).”

Zinke was accused of acting improperly following a request by the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes in Connecticut to open a casino on non-tribal land in East Windsor, Connecticut. The request required federal approval. The proposed site was near a casino planned by Las Vegas-based MGM Resorts in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts. MGM casino opened in 2018.

Zinke did not approve or deny the tribes’ request, but sent it back to the tribes in September 2017.

The lack of action led to a federal ethics investigation, one of several against Zinke, who served as interior secretary from March 2017 to January 2019. The state of Connecticut and the tribes also filed suit in 2017, alleging that improper and improper political influence, including that of MGM, was behind the decision not to sign the deals.

Among those Zinke spoke with during his deliberations were then-Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, who told investigators he asked Zinke not to approve the tribes’ request. Heller said he believed Zinke did not have authority over the project because the game would not take place on tribal lands. He also said MGM representatives explained to him how approving the request would allow the tribes to open a casino just 13 miles away from — and in direct competition with — the Springfield site.

Both Zinke and MGM have denied any wrongdoing. In a 2019 interview with The Associated Press, Zinke also denied reports that he may have lied to the Interior inspector general, saying he was asked twice about the casino decision and was honest both times.

The inspector general’s office eventually shifted its focus from the casino decision to whether Zinke and Hommel, his chief of staff, were being truthful in their statements.

The Connecticut tribes ultimately decided to shelve plans for the joint casino, citing the need to focus on their two existing casinos that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Associated Press writer Susan Hay in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.

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