Connecticut Casino Part of Inspector General’s Probe of Ryan Zinke

Ryan Zinke Ethics Probe - Ryan Zinke Mohegan Sun Foxwoods

A judge ruled Ryan Zinke did not have to approve the East Windsor casino, but the Interior Secretary declined to offer any judgment.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is the subject of a creferral by his department’s Inspector General (IG) to the US Justice Department’s IG, which could become a criminal probe if the Justice Department IG finds misconduct. Part of that referral includes Zinke’s handling of the East Windsor tribal casino near Hartford, Connecticut.

The casino is a joint venture of the Mohegan Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, who respectively own Connecticut’s huge casino-resorts, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Casino. To keep Hartford-area gamblers from driving out of state to the MGM Springfield casino, the state’s legislature gave the two tribes the right to build a casino in East Windsor.

The tribes needed permission of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to proceed with construction. Ryan Zinke’s office slow-played the tribes’ request for a decision for almost a year. When his department answered, the tribes were turned down.

The Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes cried foul, claiming Zinke was improperly influenced by lobbyists from MGM Resorts. Now it appears that the Interior Department’s Inspector General agrees with the tribes. Worse, the IG’s office is looking into whether Nevada’s two senators, Sen. Dean Heller (R) and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D), may have improperly influenced Zinke on behalf of MGM Springfield.

Ethics Probe into Ryan Zinke

The IG referral to the US Department of Justice is the latest in a deepening ethics probe into Ryan Zinke’s conduct since he came to Washington. The former US Navy Seal represented the state of Montana before he was picked by President Donald Trump to run the Interior Department.

Ryan Zinke has been aggressive in trying to tamp down on investigations in his term of office. The Inspector General of the Interior Department has launched 3 separate probes of Zinke for unethical conduct, but this third investigation seems to concern Zinke the most. According to some reports, he tried to shut down the investigation.

Said to be a favorite of fellow hunter Donald Trump Jr., Ryan Zinke’s term in office has been controversial. The US Interior Department has a wide portfolio of duties, including oversight of national parks and other public lands. Zinke has discussed making public lands available to natural gas and oil interests, which drew criticism from progressives.

Zinke’s Travel Expenses

The first ethics investigation had to do with Zinke’s exorbitant travel expenses, including an attempt to have his wife declared an employee of the Interior Department so she could travel at taxpayers’ expense. A suspicious land deal back in Montana is also under scrutiny.

The decision over the East Windsor casino is a complicated one. The Connecticut tribes sued, but a federal judge ruled earlier this year that Zinke is under no obligation accept revision’s to the state’s gaming compact with the tribes. The 1988 Indian Gambling Regulatory Act calls for a 90-day decision process, but does not assure approval when the decision comes.

Ryan Zinke and Jeff Sessions

Native American tribal interests across the United States complain that the Trump administration is hostile to their interests. The two officials most-associated with those complained are Ryan Zinke and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions’ Justice Department threatened to charge the Pojoacque Pueblo tribe in New Mexico with crimes in its ongoing gaming compact dispute with the state of New Mexico. Such pressure is likely to force the tribe to accede to demands by Gov. Susana Martinez that seem to violate the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Wampanoag Tribe Complaint

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, the Wampanoag Tribe’s plans for the First Light Casino in Taunton were rejected by Ryan Zinke’s office. The Wampanoag’s claim appeared to be on shakier ground, because the lands on which the casino was to be built were not recognized by the US government by 1934 — an important cutoff date for tribal casinos.

Such complaints hardly register with Ryan Zinke in comparison to his other controversies. The cabinet member faces a serious investigation which might include criminal charges. It is the kind of ethics scandal which caused EPA chief Scott Pruitt to resign earlier this year. In such cases, officials who resign tend to escape a possible criminal investigation.

Zinke long has been rumored to be on the way out of the Trump administration. It is not uncommon to see officials leave after an election cycle, so a variety of prominent White House staffers and cabinet members could leave after the 2018 midterm elections.