Investigators: Zinke abused cabinet role to push hometown project

Former Interior Secretary, now running for Congress, dismissed probe as “political hit job”

National Weekend Edition /
Feb.February 20, 2022 12:00 PM

Ryan Zinke, former U.S. Interior Secretary (Getty Images, iStock/Photo Illustration by Steven Dilakian for The Real Deal)

For former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, it all may have started with a couple of beers in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana.

Now federal investigators say Zinke misused his position to advance a commercial development project that included the construction of a hotel and microbrewery in his hometown, then lied to an ethics official about his involvement, the Associated Press reported.

Investigators with the Interior Department’s inspector general found the former Trump administration official continued work on the commercial project through a nonprofit foundation in the resort town of Whitefish, even after committed to cutting ties with the foundation upon taking office.

Zinke co-founded the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation in 2007 to build a community sledding hill in Whitefish, a tourist town about 25 miles from Glacier National Park near the Canadian border. BNSF Railway gave several acres of land to the foundation to help establish the park.

After being named Interior Secretary in 2017, Zinke agreed to stop providing services to the foundation. But after stepping down as its president, 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, who is now running for an open Montana seat in Congress, blasted the investigative report as “a political hit job.” He 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 and his wife, Lola, declined interview requests from federal investigators looking into the land deal.

But subpoenaed emails and text messages from others who were involved in the project show Zinke continued to communicate with the developers, according to investigators, who did not name the developers.

“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.

In one email, a person identified 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 didn’t give any details about the proposed deal or say who would own the microbrewery.

Zinke directed his Interior Department staff 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 after a tour of the Lincoln Memorial that was led by Zinke, the investigative report said.

Staff members also printed documents for Zinke related to 95 Karrow, violating rules against using subordinates to perform non-official duties, the report found.

But when questioned about his role in the foundation and the 95 Karrow development project in July 2018 by an Interior ethics official, Zinke denied any substantive involvement in the project, according to the report.

City officials in Whitefish approved revised plans for 95 Karrow in September, the Whitefish Pilot reported. The plans include a 70-room hotel, a microbrewery, a restaurant, offices, shops and 84 residential units.

[AP] – Dana Bartholomew

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