President Donald Trump's Department of Justice has been tasked with examining evidence of wrongdoing by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, following the referral of one of several probes into the Trump appointee's conduct by his department's own Inspector General.
As the Washington Post reported, the development suggests that a criminal investigation into Zinke's conduct could be imminent—but the exact conduct being examined by the DOJ remains unknown.
Just another totally normal day in the Trump administration, when one of his cabinet secretaries is referred to DOJ by the agency's own internal watchdog for a possible criminal investigation https://t.co/gzIMZzrXy3
— Robert Maguire (@RobertMaguire_) October 30, 2018
BREAKING: @Interior's Inspector General just referred one of its ongoing probes into Ryan Zinke's conduct to the Justice Department.
DOJ referral means that prosecutors will explore whether a criminal investigation is warranted.https://t.co/UPE2NJFfhN
— Friends of the Earth Action (@foe_us) October 30, 2018
The inspector general, Mary Kendall, has opened a number of cases involving Zinke, and it was unclear as of Tuesday afternoon which investigation she has referred to the DOJ.
In June, Kendall began investigating Zinke's continued involvement in a land development deal in Whitefish, Montana, even after he was appointed Interior Secretary. The deal, involving a retail development, was backed by the chairman of oil company Halliburton—whose business is significantly affected by policies enacted by the Interior Department. Zinke owns several properties near the planned development, according to the Post.
"The American people must be able to trust that Department of the Interior decisions that affect the nation's welfare on a daily basis are not compromised by individual self-enrichment," wrote Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) in a letter earlier this year, urging Kendall to investigate the deal.
Kendall has also probed Zinke's travel since he took office in March 2017, releasing a report this month showing that ethics officials within his agency had grown concerned over the fact that Zinke's wife traveled with him on taxpayer-funded trips. The Trump administration is currently searching for its own appointee to replace Kendall, who has worked in the department since 1999.
Another ongoing investigation involving the secretary deals with a casino deal in Connecticut which he stopped from being completed after two Nevada senators lobbied against the project, which had been proposed by two Native American tribes. The casino would have competed with an MGM casino across the state border in Massachusetts, according to the groups that lobbied against it.
The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes, which are hoping to reopen a lawsuit against Zinke, argued in a court filing earlier this month that Zinke's decision not to approve the project was the result of "improper political influence."
Despite the fact that Zinke's case has been referred by an official in an independent, nonpartisan position—who has worked in the federal government under Republican and Democratic presidents since 1986—Zinke hastily denounced the investigation as "politically driven" on Tuesday, drawing criticism on social media.