Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke earlier in October announces a ban on mining claims north of Yellowstone National Park.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke earlier in October announces a ban on mining claims north of Yellowstone National Park. Matthew Brown / AP

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Investigations of Interior Secretary’s Conduct Intensify

Media reports suggest IG referred Zinke to Justice Department with odd timing.

Several media outlets on Tuesday reported that the Interior Department’s inspector general has referred cases involving Secretary Ryan Zinke’s alleged misconduct to the Justice Department.

Though no agency has officially confirmed such a move toward a probe of possible criminal violations, the timing suggests that the intensified scrutiny of Zinke’s travel, political activities and certain policy decisions could have been related to the recently aborted attempt to replace the current acting Interior watchdog.

The Washington Post on Tuesday cited two inside sources reporting the unspecified referral, as well as an unnamed White House official saying the president’s staff understands there is a probe of whether Zinke “used his office to help himself.”

CNN the same day quoted Zinke responding that the Justice Department hasn’t talked to him. “It will be the same thing as all the other investigations," he said. "I follow all rules, procedures, regulations and most importantly the law. This is another politically driven investigation that has no merit.”

The Hill on Wednesday linked the timing of the referral to Justice as “just days before” the inaccurate email sent to Housing and Urban Development staff by HUD Secretary Ben Carson announcing that HUD administrator and human resources specialist Suzanne Israel Tufts would be replacing current acting Interior IG Mary Kendall. Kendall, a deputy IG, remains in the job, and Tufts has resigned from HUD.

An Interior IG spokeswoman reiterated to Government Executive that her office won’t be commenting on an ongoing investigation. The Justice Department also would not comment.

The environmental advocacy group called the Western Values Project, citing 15 probes of Zinke launched since the former Republican House Member from Montana was sworn in on March 1, 2017, stressed a link between the reported referral and the effort to replace the IG. “The reasons why Secretary Zinke would want to fire the inspector general are now crystal clear: he will do anything to avoid accountability,” said the group’s executive director Chris Saeger.  “The mere possibility that an Interior secretary’s behavior could result in a federal criminal investigation is deeply disturbing.”

Liz Hempowicz, public policy director for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, which tracks inspectors general, said, “This criminal referral to the Department of Justice underscores the need for independent inspectors general. Their vital work can implicate the highest political leaders in an agency and the public must have confidence in the merits of these investigations.”