Internal Watchdog: Zinke Didn’t Shrink Monument to Benefit Utah Lawmaker
The Department of Interior's (DOI) Office of Inspector General (OIG) was investigating whether or not Zinke had altered the monument's boundaries specifically to benefit Utah Republican Congressman Mike Noel. Noel had petitioned for the monument to be shrunk and also owned property nearby, including 40 acres that fell inside the old monument boundaries and outside the new ones. The OIG, however, ruled there was no evidence that Zinke knew of Noel's interest in the area or redrew the boundaries with him in mind.
The OIG 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," Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift told The Associated Press.
Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger was skeptical that Zinke had done nothing wrong. He told The Associated Press that photos taken of Zinke and Noel together during a tour of the shrunken monument last year "seem to contradict" Zinke's innocence and urged the OIG to release the report "and let the public judge the merits of the findings."
Environmental groups like the Western Values Project have criticized Zinke for shrinking public lands like Grand Staircase to benefit fossil fuel and mining interests. Even if Grand Staircase was not redrawn with Noel in mind, DOI documents obtained by The New York Times in March did show that the Trump administration decided to reduce it and fellow Utah National Monument Bears Ears in order to increase access to deposits of oil, natural gas, uranium and coal.
Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, who will chair the House Natural Resources Committee in January now that the Democrats have taken the House, said he would investigate the controversial decision to shrink the two monuments.
"Secretary Zinke should have known the people he was listening to while destroying our national monuments had disqualifying conflicts of interest," he told The Associated Press, while saying he accepts the reports findings.
Zinke is still facing other investigations into his conduct in office. One involves a real estate development owned by the son of the chairman of oil giant Halliburton, which the DOI regulates. Another concerns claims that Zinke met only with opponents of a Native American casino project in Connecticut and might have given false information to the tribes behind the project.
A third investigation looks whether Zinke reassigned a former DOI official for criticizing him, The Associated Press reported.