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Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke arrives at the Capitol on Dec. 3, 2018.
Then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke arrives at the Capitol on Dec. 3, 2018.Shawn Thew / picture-alliance via AP file

Inspector general: Zinke knowingly misled federal investigators

The question isn’t whether Ryan Zinke is haunted by corruption and ethics allegations. The question is whether voters in Montana will care.

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One of the things that made Donald Trump’s presidential cabinet so unusual was the sheer volume of scandals. Four members of the Republican’s cabinet were referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution over the course of three years — a dynamic without precedent in American history.

But as we’ve discussed, even among the scandal-plagued cabinet secretaries, Ryan Zinke stood out as ... special.

As regular readers may recall, Zinke’s tenure as interior secretary was almost cartoonishly provocative: The Montana Republican came under at least 15 different investigations before resigning under a cloud of controversy. In December 2018, The New York Times published a round-up of Zinke-related probes, and it was a strikingly long list. Media Matters also put together a timeline of the former interior secretary’s “questionable actions and controversies,” and that list was even longer.

Some of those controversies are still coming into focus. NBC News reported yesterday that, according to the findings of the Department of Interior’s inspector general, Zinke and his chief of staff knowingly made false statements to federal investigators.

During one of those investigations, about an Interior Department decision to block a request by two Native American tribes to open a casino in Connecticut, Zinke and his chief of staff “knowingly provided incorrect, incomplete, and misleading answers” to investigators from the department’s Office of the Inspector General, the report said. “We concluded that he provided a misleading portrayal of the basis for his decision,” the inspector general found, particularly over whether he was influenced by lobbyists and a U.S. senator on the matter.

Though Zinke continues to claim he did nothing wrong, the independent watchdog office found that he “repeatedly” misled investigators in the matter.

Readers with good memories might be asking at this point, “Wait, didn’t we learn about this in February?” Actually, no. In February, the Interior Department’s inspector general concluded that Zinke also lied to investigators about his involvement in a Montana land deal and ran afoul of federal ethics rules.

In other words, the cabinet agency’s inspector general found that the former secretary lied to investigators about two entirely separate controversies.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, at this point, it might be tempting to think Zinke’s many controversies are no longer relevant. Sure, he faced 15 investigations over the course of his 22-month tenure. And sure, he found it necessary to resign under a cloud of controversy. And sure, he was referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. And sure, his former agency’s inspector general concluded — twice — that he engaged in deliberate acts of deception.

But what difference does it make now? Zinke left office more than three years ago. Isn’t he yesterday’s news?

If only it were that simple: Zinke is currently running for Congress. The Republican is hoping to parlay his many scandals into a revived career as a federal lawmaker on Capitol Hill.

Common sense might suggest that Zinke couldn’t possibly get elected with a record like this. But in contemporary GOP politics, the Montanan — who narrowly won a primary race in June — assumes voters in his red-state will elect him anyway.

What’s more, Zinke’s assumption is probably correct: According to a FiveThirtyEight forecast, the scandal-plagued Republican has a 98% chance of winning in November.

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