Outgoing Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is seen judging the holiday decorating competition at the U.S. Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., on December 10, 2018. Photo: Secretary Zinke

Secretary Ryan Zinke resigns amid 'false allegations' of wrongdoing

By Acee Agoyo and Todd York

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is leaving the Trump administration following yet another report of pervasive misconduct at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

There have been five internal investigations into harassment and questionable behaviors at the BIA since August alone amid charges of wrongdoing at the top levels of the Department of the Interior. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and former U.S. Congressman from Montana, has been among those targeted by the ongoing scrutiny.

But the allegations, which Zinke has repeatedly brushed off as "fake news" and politically motivated, took a different turn in recent weeks. A federal grand jury has been looking into the activities of this key member of the Trump cabinet, multiple sources told Indianz.Com.

While visiting numerous bureaus as agencies at Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., this week as part of holiday competition, Zinke was keenly aware of his possible legal jeopardy, sources said. One official even confronted him directly about his future plans for the department and was surprised when the Secretary refused to offer an answer.

The drama came to a head on Friday when Zinke -- a decorated veteran -- skipped out on an event honoring America's fallen soldiers. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who is now poised to take over the department, at least in an acting capacity, was sent instead.

That's because, behind the scenes, Zinke was preparing his exit from the administration. After being informed of potential criminal action against him, he chose to resign that day, the sources told Indianz.Com.

Then on Saturday morning, President Donald Trump said Zinke will be leaving at the "end of the year."

"Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation," Trump said in a post on Twitter.

"The Trump Administration will be announcing the new Secretary of the Interior next week," the president added in a second post.

Zinke also confirmed his resignation, speaking generally about his troubles in a statement posted on Twitter in the afternoon. In it, he pushed back against "false allegations" that have consumed media coverage of the department.

"It is better for the President and Interior to focus on accomplishments rather than fictitious allegations," the outgoing Secretary said.

Zinke's woes at Interior include a tribally-owned casino in Connecticut that was mysteriously stalled by his administration. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Tribe have been kept in the dark about the project for more than a year as representatives of a non-Indian gaming firm personally lobbied the Secretary to reject it.

The Office of Inspector General at the Department of the Interior opened an investigation into the matter in April after the tribes went to court to question the delay. Two months later, the Mohegan Tribe's gaming agreement was suddenly approved -- almost 10 months after a deadline imposed by federal law.

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation's agreement, however, remains in limbo, more than 16 months after it was sent to D.C. for review. Meanwhile, the internal investigation has yet to produce any concrete results.

But that's because the Department of Justice picked up on the matter, according to multiple sources, along with other possible allegations of wrongdoing by Zinke and his team in Washington.

"This is no kind of victory, but I’m hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page," Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) said in a post on Twitter.

Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources, was personally attacked by Zinke last month after calling on the Cabinet official to resign.

"It’s time for the Interior Dept to put the public good ahead of the fossil fuel industry, and House Democrats on the Natural Resources Committee will do just that come January," said Grijalva, who is expected to serve as chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over Indian issues when 116th Congress convenes in January under Democratic control.

Zinke, who had a strong record on tribal issues during his two years in the U.S. House of Representatives, arrived at Interior in March 2017 with great promise. He vowed to fight for improvements in the BIA's budget, which has failed to keep up with inflation and other costs, and address misconduct at the agency.

But Zinke has found it difficult to bring change, as well as discipline, to an agency with roots in genocidal and colonialist policies of the past. He has failed to bring significant resources to the BIA and has offered little in terms of new initiatives, except for adopting a tough stance on drugs, one that hasn't always been well received in Indian Country, and for proposing a controversial reorganization that tribes all but declared dead on arrival.

And despite ordering the BIA more than a year ago to develop anti-harassment policies and plans, no such documents have ever been made public. Meanwhile, a string of reports about sexual harassment, misconduct and other bad actors have trickled out from the Office of the Inspector General while Zinke and Tara Sweeney, the new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, have gone all but silent on the issue.

During some of his recent visits with Interior bureaus, Zinke seemed to accept the lack of progress, telling some employees that he was "going to do more for Indian Country" in 2019 -- a prospect that has disappeared with his sudden exit from the administration.

"I was disappointed to learn that Secretary Zinke is stepping down. He has been a strong partner for western states and for Alaska, in particular," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which also handles key tribal legislation.

Alaska has indeed been a strong focus of Zinke's efforts, with a wealthy Alaska Native corporation benefiting from his pro-development agenda. Sweeney, who is is the first Alaska Native to serve as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a political post at Interior, happens to be a former executive at Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which has lobbied extensively to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling.

“Surrounding himself with former lobbyists, it quickly became clear that Ryan Zinke was a pawn for the oil and gas industry," said Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, which has repeatedly accused the outgoing Secretary of "corruption."

But Zinke's Indian agenda isn't the only one that has gone awry, as Sweeney too has been hobbled by a lack of new initiatives after joining the Trump administration in late July.

During her confirmation hearing earlier this year, Sweeney vowed to spend her first 180 days on a listening tour with tribal communities. Such a plan has yet to materialize as 2019 approaches.

"One cannot paint Indian Country with a single stroke," Sweeney told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 9.

With Zinke heading out the door, Sweeney will remain as the face of the Trump administration's Indian policy. Controversial proposals initiated before her arrival at Interior include the reorganization, regulations that tribes say will make it harder to restore their homelands and a halt altogether to land-into-trust applications in Alaska.

"We need an Interior Secretary who doesn’t just listen to corporate lobbyists and donors, but who will closely consult with tribes and listen to the overwhelming majority of the American people who want to see our land and environment protected," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Reaction from #NativeTwitter

Recent Office of the Inspector General Reports into Misconduct at Bureau of Indian Affairs / Bureau of Indian Education
Investigation of Misconduct and Mismanagement at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (December 2018)
Investigation of Misconduct Allegations at Haskell Indian Nations University (November 2018)
BIA Official Engaged in Unprofessional Behavior (September 4, 2018)
Employees Believed BIE Director’s Presence During Fiscal Monitoring Review at Former School Was Improper (August 2018)
BIE Official Allegedly Inflated Gifted Program Enrollment and Student Attendance Numbers at Former School (August 2018)

Even More Office of the Inspector General Reports about Misconduct
BIA Manager Allegedly Sexually Harassed Three Subordinate Employees (February 20, 2018)
Insufficient Actions by BIA Management and Human Resource Officials in Response to Sexual Harassment Reports (October 18, 2017)
BIA Employee Visited Pornographic Websites on His Government Computer (September 20, 2017)
BIA Employee Sent Unwanted, Sexually Explicit Messages (June 5, 2017)

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