BILLINGS – Newly departed U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told The Associated Press on Thursday that he’s been truthful with investigators looking into numerous ethics complaints against him and rejected as inaccurate a report that he’s under investigation for lying.
Zinke’s comments came in response to a Washington Post story alleging that the Justice Department’s public integrity section was examining whether the former Montana congressman lied to investigators from Interior Department’s office of inspector general, which provides independent oversight of the agency.
In his first interview since he stepped down on Wednesday, Zinke says the allegations are false and appeared to have been leaked to undermine his accomplishments as head of a department responsible for managing about 500 million acres of U.S. lands, primarily in the West. He resigned last month after Democrats critical of Zinke’s tenure regained control of the House of Representatives in the November election.
The shift in power was expected to lead to a wave of oversight hearings amid numerous ethics investigations involving both Zinke’s work as secretary and dealings outside office. They include his decisions to block two tribes from opening a Connecticut casino and a land deal that he pursued with the chairman of energy services company Halliburton.
As Interior secretary, Zinke pushed to develop oil, natural gas and coal beneath public lands in line with the administration’s business-friendly goals. But he has been dogged by the ethics investigations, which he characterized as “political attacks” against him by conservation groups and Democrats.
The Associated Press reported in November that the inspector general’s office referred an investigation of Zinke to the Justice Department.
The Post story , citing anonymous sources, says Interior investigators came to believe Zinke lied to them and referred the matter to the Justice Department for potential criminal violations.
The report did not detail which of the inspector general investigations was sent to the Justice Department. Agency spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle declined to comment.
“It’s an unauthorized leak from an anonymous source over false allegations,” Zinke told AP.
He said the inspector general’s office asked him about the casino decision on two occasions and that he was truthful both times. Investigators have never interviewed him directly about a land deal in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, that involves the former chairman of Halliburton, a company that does business with the Interior Department.
Zinke said the latest allegations against him fit the pattern of a “playbook” that’s been followed by his critics since he entered office. Using “frivolous allegations, sources, rumors, innuendo and false accusations,” he said, groups such as Montana Conservation Voters and Western Values Project have tried to make it impossible for Zinke and other Trump Cabinet members to serve.
He added that the groups also want to smear his name to undercut any future bid he might make for public office.
“They believe I’m going to run for governor, or they want to dismiss the Trump administration’s accomplishments in conservation,” he said. “The investigations started nearly on the first day in office. After 10 investigations, the conclusions are all the same: No wrongdoing, followed all procedures, policies and laws. Every investigation will follow the same conclusion.”
A representative of Western Values Project, Jayson O’Neill, declined to comment and said it was because Zinke has resigned. Montana Conservation Voters did not immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment.
A representative of another group critical of Zinke, Kate Kelly with the Center for American Progress, said the report of possible lying, if true, was “one more reason Ryan Zinke has no business ever occupying another position of public trust.”
“As the saying goes, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up,” Kelly said.
The inspector general’s office hasn’t released its findings in the casino and land deal complaints against Zinke.
In another probe, investigators said Zinke violated a policy that prohibits non-government employees from riding in government cars after his wife traveled with him, but he said ethics officials approved it. He 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.