By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press
BUTT, Mont. (AP) — Former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke faced sharp attacks for past dishonesty from his Democratic opponent in a Montana US House race debate on Thursday night, as the Republican sought to downplay recent reports from federal investigators who said he lied to them in two separate cases.
Zinke narrowly won the June Republican primary over a lesser-known opponent in his bid to return to Congress after resigning from Trump’s cabinet amid numerous ethics investigations. He’s challenged by Democrat Monica Tranel, a Missoula attorney and Libertarian John Lamb, a farmer from Norris.
The Interior Department’s inspector general, a Trump appointee, said Zinke lied to federal investigators examining a Native American casino proposal in Connecticut that Zinke effectively blocked and his involvement in a real estate project in his hometown of Whitefish.
Zinke sought to turn the tables and accused Tranel of misleading voters about his record when the issue came up just minutes into the live debate at Montana Technological University.
“After five years, hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, you know what the report concluded? That I didn’t follow the employee handbook and had a lack of candor. I don’t know that means. I answered their questions. They just didn’t like my answers,” he said.
Prosecutors declined to pursue criminal charges and Zinke has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. But Tranel encouraged voters to read the inspector general’s reports themselves.
“Don’t take our word for it,” Tranel said. “That’s exactly what they do say — that Ryan Zinke lied to investigators.”
Tranel, a former Olympic rower, cruised to victory in the Democratic primary. But in Zinke she faces a well-financed opponent with wide name recognition from his time in Congress and previously in the state Senate.
Zinke repeatedly linked Tranel to national Democratic policies that he blamed for a sharp increase in inflation since President Joe Biden defeated former President Donald Trump and took office last year. He said Tranel’s legal work at the Montana Consumer Council advocating against utilities such as Northwestern industry had resulted in higher energy prices that would only get worse if she and other Democrats prevailed in November.
“You can’t kill US oil and gas,” said Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, who oversaw a sharp rise in domestic oil and gas drilling at Interior and worked to ease environmental restrictions on the industry.
Tranel said climate change has to be addressed including the role that America’s energy usage plays in it.
The 2020 Census gave Montana a second congressional district for the first time in 30 years.
The district is considered to lean Republican, but Democrats are hoping to win their first US House race in the state since 1997, when former Democratic Rep. Pat Williams left office.
Lamb, a supporter of the anti-government Bundy family, has not reported raising any money for his campaign. He said his candidacy gives voters an alternative to the major parties.
“Big money corrupts,” Lamb said. “It makes politicians corrupt and the people need a grassroots-type candidate to lead this western district and I believe I’m the middle guy.”
The start of the debate was briefly delayed when Zinke about minutes before it was to start Tranel bringing notes to the lectern. Zinke said the debate rules said notes would not be allowed, but relented when the event organizers said there had been no such agreement.
Campaign filings show Zinke’s campaign has raised and spent far more money than Tranel, but Democrats have narrowed the gap through outside groups that have spent heavily opposing the Republican.
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