He also lied to an agency ethics official about this involvement, federal investigators stated Wednesday.
Inspector General of the Interior Department found that Zinke continued to work on the commercial project through the nonprofit foundation in Whitefish, even though he had promised to end all ties with the foundation when he took office.
According to the report, Zinke also provided incorrect and incomplete information in an interview to an Interior Department ethics officer. He confronted Zinke about his involvement and asked agency staff to assist him in the project.
Zinke and other volunteers created the Great Northern Veterans Peace Park Foundation in 2007 in order to build a community snowshoe hill in Whitefish. Whitefish is a tourist destination located 25 miles (40 km) from Glacier National Park, and close to the Montana-Canada border. In 2008, the foundation received several acres of land from the BNSF Railway company to help establish the park.
Zinke, who was appointed Interior secretary in 2017, agreed to cease providing foundation services.
Investigators found that Zinke had engaged in "repeated substantive negotiations" with developers regarding the use of foundation property for 95 Karrow's commercial project.
Zinke is a candidate for the June 7 Republican primary to a Montana Congressional seat that's open. This position Zinke held before joining President Donald Trump's cabinet.
Zinke's campaign attacked the investigative report and called it "a political hitjob" and stated in a statement that Zinke's involvement with the foundation resulted in the restoration of railroad land to a park where children could sled.
The campaign statement stated that the children are proud of the park for children's sledding, which dozens of kids use each weekend, and many locals use to exercise every day.
The Zinke investigation was referred to the prosecutors by the department's inspector general's, which is led by Mark Greenblatt, a Trump nominee. According to the report, federal prosecutors under Attorney General Merrick Galrland, who was appointed last summer by President Joe Biden declined to pursue criminal prosecutions.
Zinke and Lola, his wife, declined interviews from federal investigators investigating the land deal.
Investigators found that Zinke communicated with developers even though he had resigned from the foundation in March 2017. These messages were obtained by subpoenas issued to developers who were not identified.
Investigators stated that evidence showed Secretary Zinke had exchanged at most 64 text messages and emails with him and that he engaged in multiple phone calls where he represented the Foundation during negotiations regarding the 95 Karrow project.
The report stated that "He wasn't just a passer-through for information to and fro the foundation; rather, several of his messages indicate that he actually acted for the Foundation or represented it in connection to the negotiations."
One email message from "developer 1" stated that Zinke requested a piece to be transferred to the park. According to the report, Zinke also requested the "exclusive right" to produce alcohol at 95 Karrow.
Investigators found that Zinke showed "apparent interest" in operating a microbrewery at the site. However, the report didn't provide any details or identify the microbrewery's owners.
Zinke directed his Interior Department staff to meet with three developers of the project in August 2017. Later, he asked them to arrange dinner for the group after a guided tour of the Lincoln Memorial. The investigative report stated that Zinke's staff also printed documents relating to 95 Karrow. This was a violation against rules against subordinates performing non-official duties.
Zinke was interrogated by an Interior Department ethics officer in July 2018 about his involvement in the foundation's development project. This was in response to news reports that Zinke had signed an agreement with 95 Karrow’s developers.
According to the report, Zinke claimed that he had no substantive involvement in the project during the interview. According to the report, the ethics official stated that Zinke had "misrepresented" facts and called Zinke’s statements "disappointing...and extremely concerning".
Arizona Rep. Raul Guilva, chairman of House Natural Resources Committee, requested that Zinke be investigated. Grijalva stated that Zinke used his office for his personal gain and tried to use the peace park as a way to force a brewery to be included in the development.
According to the Whitefish Pilot, Whitefish officials approved revised plans for 95 Karrow's construction in September. Plans include the construction of a 70-room hotel and a microbrewery. There will also be offices, shops, offices, restaurants, and shops. Telephone messages to 95 Karrow LLC representatives did not receive a response immediately.
Investigators did not find any evidence that Zinke had benefited from the actions of Halliburton, whose former chairman, David Lesar was an investor at the Whitefish development. They also found no evidence that Zinke or his staff attempted to hide Zinke’s involvement.
The investigation into the land sale was one among many probes by Zinke which began while he was in Trump’s cabinet.
Investigators discovered that Zinke violated a policy forbidding non-government employees to ride in government cars after his spouse traveled with him. However, he claimed that ethics officials had approved the move. After a complaint that Zinke had redrawn the boundaries of a Utah national monument to benefit a political ally and state lawmaker, Zinke was cleared. A second investigation was conducted to determine his decision to prevent two tribes opening a casino at Connecticut.
Zinke's wide-ranging rollbacks on oil drilling restrictions were praised by the industry while he was in charge of a agency that managed 781,000 miles (2 million kilometers) of public lands. They drew a rebuke from environmental groups as well as Democratic lawmakers, who accused Zinke of putting corporate profits above preservation.
Zinke claimed that political motivated attacks caused a distraction when he resigned in 2018 from the Interior Department. The White House determined that Zinke was most likely the Cabinet member most susceptible to investigations by Democrats, who were poised for the majority in Congress, according to a Trump administration official.