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LIAR: Former Trump Interior Secretary secretly ran land deal with Halliburton Chairman in office

LIAR: Former Trump Interior Secretary secretly ran land deal with Halliburton Chairman in office

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke left under a cloud of scandal in 2018.

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The most scandal-plagued Interior Secretary in nearly 100 years just got reamed out in a new Inspector General’s report. It’s another reminder that the presidency of Donald Trump may be over, but his administration’s legacy of corruption continues to make corruption headlines over a year after he retreated to Mar-a-Lago.

The Inspector-General of the United States Department of the Interior released a report this morning revealing that Trump’s first Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, egregiously violated ethics regulations while he served in the Trump cabinet.

Zinke famously resigned his cabinet post in December of 2018 after a tenure marked by multiple controversies —  including reducing the boundaries of existing national monuments in order to lease land to private mining interests and attempting to remove endangered animals from protection to open more land to environmental exploitation — and persistent scandal over his lavish expenditures for travel and office furnishings.

At the time of his resignation, Zinke had already been referred by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General to the Department of Justice over his involvement in reviewing a tribal casino project in Connecticut, a shady Montana land deal, and his use of personal email in his capacity as a public official.

After his resignation, those Justice Department investigations faded from the headlines and no significant public word on any consequences for his behavior in office has surfaced until today.

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The Inspector General’s report today, however, shows that Zinke was lying when he denied doing anything improper in relation to his involvement in the land deal in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana.

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Rather than the supposed minimal involvement and meetings that Zinke described as “purely social,” a review of the former secretary’s electronic communications revealed that he had “communicated with the developers 64 times between August 2017 and July 2018 to discuss the project’s design, the use of his foundation’s land as a parking lot, and his interest in operating a brewery on the site,” according to an account in The Washington Post.

“These communications, examples of which are set forth below, show that Secretary Zinke played an extensive, direct, and substantive role in representing the Foundation during negotiations with the 95 Karrow project developers,” the report from Inspector General Mark Greenblatt’s office states.

“Notably, Secretary Zinke’s communications and the related exchanges among the developers established that 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 conducting those negotiations with the then-chairman of the energy conglomerate Halliburton and other developers, Zinke repeatedly violated federal ethics laws while he was the Interior Secretary.

Moreover, the report found that Zinke continued to engage in negotiations over the property even after telling federal ethics officials that he would resign from the foundation and cease conducting business on its behalf once he was named Interior Secretary.

According to The Washington Post:

[Zinke] “met with the developers in his office at Interior Department headquarters in the summer of 2017, after which he gave them a personal tour of the Lincoln Memorial and dined with them at a German beer garden in the District, Biergarten Haus, according to records of his official schedule. Although investigators said they could not be sure what was discussed during this visit, they found it was not entirely social, as the developers presented Zinke with a plan for the parking lot during their trip to Washington.”

“Investigators also found that contrary to Zinke’s claims that his wife had taken over the project, the only evidence of communications between Lola Zinke and the developers was a single email from one developer to another, saying that Lola Zinke was rescinding the parking lot arrangement,” the newspaper  reported.

The former Trump cabinet official took a page from his former boss in responding to the Inspector General’s findings, calling them a “Biden Administration led report” that “published false information and was shared with the press as a political hit job.”

Apparently, Zinke is counting on most of the folks in Montana — where he is running for a congressional seat in a newly drawn district — won’t realize that the Inspector General’s office began its probe of his activities as Interior Secretary under a Trump appointee, well before Biden took office.

Although the Justice Department declined to act on the criminal referral sent in 2018 regarding the Whitefish land deal, the referral over his involvement in the Connecticut tribal casino project is still pending.

It remains to be seen how the DOJ will respond to the Interior Department’s Inspector General’s latest report, but it’s never too late to deliver justice on behalf of the American people and show that violations of regulations for ethical behavior simply cannot be ignored.

Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter. 

Original reporting by Anna Phillips and Lisa Rein at The Washington Post.

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