By Corinne Dorsey and Liz Stark, CNN
Trump-era Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated ethics rules by being involved in negotiations over a land development project in Montana during his time in office and by failing to fully disclose his involvement after questioning from an ethics official, according to a government watchdog report released Wednesday.
The new report from the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General focuses on Zinke’s involvement with the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation, which Zinke resigned from upon his confirmation as interior secretary in 2017. The foundation, based in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, was in negotiations with developers for a commercial development project called 95 Karrow, which sought to establish businesses in the area including a hotel, restaurant and microbrewery, according to the report.
Despite resigning from the foundation and signing ethics pledges not to provide services to it, Zinke was found to have been involved in the foundation’s negotiations during his time as interior secretary, according to the report.
“Specifically, the communications showed that Secretary Zinke repeatedly communicated with the developers of the 95 Karrow project and negotiated with them on behalf of the Foundation by discussing the use of Foundation property for the project, specific design aspects of the project, and the development of a microbrewery on the property,” the inspector general’s report states.
The inspector general’s findings were referred to the Justice Department, which declined criminal prosecution of the matter last summer, the report states.
Soon after the report was publicly released, Zinke, who served under President Donald Trump, posted on Twitter: “Only in Biden’s corrupt admin is talking to my neighbor a sin. 15 years ago our family created a free and open space for people to enjoy in Whitefish.”
“We are proud of the children’s sledding park that dozens of kids use every weekend & countless locals use for exercise every day,” he wrote Wednesday.
Zinke faced several ethics questions throughout his time at the Interior Department, including multiple inquiries from the inspector general’s office related to the boundaries for the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the department’s handling of a Connecticut casino project and his compliance with government travel policies.
Zinke later stepped down as interior secretary, saying in a December 2018 statement that he was proud of his work at the department and describing allegations against him as “false.” In a private resignation letter, he blamed “vicious and politically motivated attacks” for his departure, The Washington Post reported at the time.
Zinke declined requests for a voluntary interview with the inspector general’s office, according to the report.
But communications obtained by the inspector general’s office illustrate Zinke’s continued involvement in the foundation’s matters, including more than 60 emails and text messages between August 2017 and July 2018 where Zinke “communicated directly” with project developers, investigators found.
The communications revealed Zinke “played an extensive, direct, and substantive role in representing the Foundation during negotiations with the 95 Karrow project developers,” the report states.
“In light of these communications, we found that Secretary Zinke failed to abide by his ethics obligations in which he committed not to manage or provide any other services to the Foundation after his appointment as Secretary of the Interior,” the report states.
While investigators concluded Zinke had violated ethics rules, they did not find that he had violated federal conflict of interest laws.
“Specifically, because we did not find that Secretary Zinke participated in any official matters involving the Foundation or the 95 Karrow project, we did not conclude that he violated 18 U.S.C. § 208, the Federal criminal conflict of interest statute,” the watchdog report found.
Wednesday’s report further details Zinke’s interactions with developers related to the negotiations, including multiple phone calls and at least one meeting in person in his Interior Department office in Washington, which was followed by a personal tour of the Lincoln Memorial and a dinner together.
The inspector general’s office also found Zinke “did not comply with his duty of candor when questioned by the DOI’s then Designated Agency Ethics Official (DAEO) about his continued involvement in Foundation matters, including the 95 Karrow project.” The report indicates Zinke “knowingly provided materially incorrect, incomplete, and misleading answers” to the ethics official when questioned about his role in the foundation’s matters.
Zinke was also found to have “misused his official position when he directed his subordinates to perform activities related to the 95 Karrow project and its developers on their official duty time that were not related to their official duties,” according to the report.
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CNN’s Greg Wallace contributed to this report.