A Washington grand jury is hearing arguments from prosecutors alleging that former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to the department’s Office of the Inspector General, The Washington Post reported Friday, citing two individuals briefed of the matter.
The grand jury marks another hit for Zinke, who had been the target of several department investigations before he left his post in December.
The sealed case pertains to Zinke’s denial of two American Indian tribes’ petition to open a Connecticut casino outside of reservation land in 2017, allegedly due to government lobbying by competitor MGM Resorts International, the two people told the paper. The Post reported that Zinke had not been summoned before the grand jury as of Friday.
The US Attorney’s Office in Washington had no comment.
The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes allege that Zinke’s decision was motivated by political influence – specifically Rep. Mark Amodei and former Sen. Dean Heller, both Nevada Republicans, who have received donations from MGM Resorts International, according to the Post. Several Interior officials had granted preliminary approval before the department ultimately denied the petition in September 2017, the Post reported, prompting the tribes to sue.
Federal investigators from Interior’s Office of the Inspector General looked into the matter last year, and later determined that Zinke had lied to them. They enlisted the Department of Justice to investigate in late 2018.
Prosecutors have asked witnesses, who include Interior officials, whether anyone tried to convince Zinke to deny the tribes’ petition and what counsel they offered him as he reviewed the matter, the two individuals told the Post.
Zinke denied the allegations in an interview with the Post in January.
“The Department of Interior should not take a position on any activity outside the reservation that is not bound by law or treaty,” he told the paper at the time.
“I sided with a principle that I didn’t want to take a position on something that was off the reservation. I had multiple legal counselors’ opinions about what was legal. The investigators may not have liked my answers, but they were truthful.”