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Blumenthal: Zinke probe aside, Interior must act on tribe’s gaming amendment

January 4, 2019

Reacting to a report that the Justice Department is looking into whether former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke lied to government investigators probing his handling of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes’ amended gaming agreements with the state, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Thursday the department “needs to do the right thing” regardless of the Zinke probe’s outcome.

Interior’s failure to act on the Mashantuckets’ amendment continues to stymie the tribes’ joint plan to develop an East Windsor casino.

“I’m hoping that the Interior Department corrects its previous failure to properly approve the casino amendments,” Blumenthal said in a phone interview. “And I hope the issue is completely resolved before a new secretary is confirmed because that could take some time. ... Time is important.”

The Washington Post, citing as sources “three people familiar with the matter,” reported that the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section was examining whether Zinke lied to investigators from the Interior Department’s Office of the Inspector General. The office has been investigating Zinke’s link to a Montana land deal as well as his involvement with the Connecticut tribes’ gaming amendments, the latter at the request of Blumenthal and other members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation.

“New information that former Interior Secretary Zinke may have lied to investigators — a federal crime — is serious and significant, opening a new phase in holding Zinke accountable for his improper conduct,” Blumenthal said later in a statement. “The prosecutors in the Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section bring criminal charges against lawbreaking officials and conduct trials and other proceedings — now a distinctly possible outcome for Zinke. The reason I called for the Inspector General’s investigation, which led to this inquiry, was Zinke’s possible conflicts of interest, improper favoritism, and other potential misconduct — which could give rise to charges of perjury and fraud, among others.” 

Zinke, who resigned under pressure, told The Associated Press that he’s been truthful with investigators looking into numerous ethics complaints against him. He said the allegations are false and appeared to have been leaked to undermine his accomplishments as secretary.

In November 2017, the tribes and the state of Connecticut brought a lawsuit against the Interior Department and Zinke seeking to compel action on the tribes’ gaming amendments. Interior recognized the Mohegans’ amendment in June but continues to withhold action on the Mashantuckets’ amendment.

A U.S. District Court judge initially dismissed the claim of the Mashantuckets and the state last fall, prompting them to seek to amend it.

In a subsequent filing, the tribe and the state say Interior officials were preparing to approve the tribes’ gaming amendments when “the (Interior) Department ultimately buckled under undue political pressure from both Senator Dean Heller and Representative Mark Amodei,” both of whom are Nevada Republicans.

The filing says MGM Resorts International, the Las Vegas-based casino operator seeking to block the East Windsor project, was a major campaign contributor to Heller and Amodei and that Heller “directly pressured” Zinke “to do what was necessary to stop the Tribes’ joint venture casino project during a private dinner at a steakhouse in Las Vegas, Nevada, on or about July 30, 2017.”

Heller, who lost his bid for re-election in November, has been mentioned as a possible candidate to replace Zinke as Interior secretary. In the interim, the former deputy secretary, David Bernhardt, is serving as acting head of the department.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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