Justice Department probing Trump’s former Interior chief Zinke

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether President Donald Trump’s former Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, lied to Department of Interior investigators in what could be a potential criminal violation, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.

The Post, citing three people familiar with the matter, said the former Cabinet official was the center of two probes by his department’s inspector general: one involving his real estate transactions in Montana and another over his role in a review of a Connecticut casino project proposed by Native American tribes.

Zinke left the administration on Wednesday but had made no public mention of the ethics investigations upon his departure from Interior, which oversees America’s vast public lands. Trump did not give a reason for the departure when he announced it last month.

The people familiar with the matter said Interior investigators had referred the matter to the Department of Justice after coming to believe that Zinke had lied to them about his dealings, according to the Post.

Representatives for Zinke could not be immediately reached for comment on the Post report. A spokesman for Zinke told the Post that the former secretary had not been contacted by the Justice Department, the Post said. Zinke had voluntarily been interviewed by Interior investigators regarding the casino, he also told the Post.

“As a general matter, the department doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigation,” Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said.

The Post, citing people familiar with the matter, said Justice Department officials have not decided yet whether to charge Zinke.

Zinke, a former Navy Seal and U.S. congressman, had served as Interior secretary since early 2017 but had faced investigations into his use of security details, chartered flights and a real estate deal in his home state of Montana. Trump had said in November he would look at the allegations.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by James Dalgleish)