Interior’s inspector general, who is also investigating the secretary on several additional ethics fronts, found no evidence of rule violations.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke broke no rules and provided no special favors in his decision last year to reduce the area of the protected Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, the department’s watchdog has determined.
Environmental advocates had accused Zinke of catering to the financial interests and influence of Utah state Republican House member Mike Noel, a critic of federal land use policy who owns land near the monument.
The Associated Press on Monday night reported that acting Interior Department Inspector General Mary Kendall—who is also investigating Zinke on several ethics fronts—sent a letter to Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt saying her staff had found no evidence of preferential treatment in this part of the larger Trump administration decision to open more Western lands to development.
“We found no evidence that Noel influenced the DOI’s proposed revisions to the [monument’s] boundaries, that Zinke or other DOI staff involved in the project were aware of Noel’s financial interest in the revised boundaries, or that they gave Noel any preferential treatment in the resulting proposed boundaries,” Kendall wrote in the summary published by the Washington Post.
Under the IG’s procedures, the entire report went to the deputy, and the cover letter of transmittal was then obtained by the AP. The IG’s office on Wednesday told Government Executive that the actual report will be published on Dec. 27.
Zinke has long denied the accusations. The report “shows exactly what the secretary’s office has known all along—that the monument boundaries were adjusted in accordance with all rules, regulations and laws,” an Interior spokesman told the AP. The report “is also the latest example of political opponents and special interest groups ginning up fake and misleading stories, only to be proven false after expensive and time-consuming inquiries by the IG’s office,” said spokeswoman Heather Swift.
The Utah lawmaker, who has appeared with Trump in the new monument designations, told the AP he never talked to Zinke or anyone at Interior about the monument boundaries “associated with my private property, nor did I receive any favorable treatment regarding my property.”
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Chris Saeger, executive director of the public lands advocacy group Western Values Project, which brought the original complaint, said, “We respect the work of the IG, which is more important than ever right now, but serious questions remain about what happened with the boundary adjustment. Overall, the only thing we’ve seen so far from the IG suggests that there was not evidence of wrongdoing, which of course does not mean there was no wrongdoing.”
The group expressed skepticism of Zinke’s claim that there were no consultations with Noel. Zinke had said he would hear out local leaders on the issue of changing the monument’s boundaries and the two men were photographed together. “In the end,” Saeger said, “Zinke is the most investigated remaining member of the Cabinet.”