Politico uncovered two more instances of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke attending political fundraisers while on official government business.
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WASHINGTON — Even the local newspaper thought it was odd when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stopped briefly last month at a small Pennsylvania town bearing a huge ceremonial check and the promise of millions of dollars to clean up abandoned coal mine lands.
Zinke’s visit to the East Bethlehem fire hall seemed hastily planned and “was baffling – to local residents, the media, and likely, those who planned his appearance,” the Observer-Reporter wrote in an editorial.
“You could call it a news conference, a town hall meeting, a political op,” the paper concluded. “And you could call it something else: fake news.”
Government watchdog groups and at least two congressional Democrats say Zinke’s trip smells of politics and seemed designed to benefit the GOP candidate in a special congressional election that Republicans are in danger of losing on Tuesday.
“It definitely looks fishy,” said Nick Schwellenbach, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight.
What’s more, critics say, the Pennsylvania trip appears to be part of a pattern in which Zinke mixes politics with his official business as a cabinet secretary.
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift rejected assertions that Zinke’s visit was political.
“Basic facts would easily prove this wrong,” she said in a statement. “The department has been distributing AML (Abandoned Mine Land) grants to Pennsylvania and other states for several years. Pennsylvania is the second largest recipient and the location was just a few minutes from a project receiving funds.”
Pennsylvania will receive $56 million of the $300 million in grants that Zinke announced will be available to clean up abandoned mine lands in 25 states and three Native American tribes. One of the sites to be reclaimed is about a half-mile from where Zinke spoke.
Regardless, two congressional Democrats – Reps. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Donald McEachin of Virginia – sent a letter Wednesday to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and asked for an investigation into whether Zinke’s trip was a violation of the Hatch Act, which restricts federal employees from using their jobs to influence elections.
Their letter notes that the event took place on Feb. 24, just a little more than two weeks before Tuesday’s special election and just outside of Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, where that election will be held.
President Trump won the mostly working-class district by 20 points in 2016, but polls show the congressional race is a toss-up. Republicans are pouring millions of dollars into the contest to help the GOP candidate, Rick Saccone, who has Trump’s backing.
Saccone attended the Zinke event. The Democratic candidate, Conor Lamb, did not.
Lamb’s campaign did not respond to a question about whether he was invited. The Observer-Reporter noted, however, that a number of political figures were on hand, including Republicans and Democrats.
Ryan Zinke rode a horse to work for his first day, escorted by the U.S. Park Police. Buzz60’s Amanda Kabbabe (@kabbaber) has more.
In the year since he has been in office, Zinke’s tenure as Interior secretary has been marked by a number of questions about his travel and spending habits and suggestions that he often mixes official business with politics.
“These kinds of issues seem to follow him,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “There are a ton of ethical questions with Ryan Zinke right now.”
– On Feb. 23, the day before Zinke’s appearance in Pennsylvania, the Campaign Legal Center asked the Interior Department’s inspector general to investigate what it called “a concerning pattern” regarding Zinke’s compliance with the legal standards of public service and his stewardship of public funds.
The complaint alleges, among other things, that Zinke scheduled himself to be in the Virgin Islands, reportedly on official business, on March 30, 2017 and while there he possibly violated the Hatch Act. The violation involved appearing at a Republican Party fundraiser and allowing party operatives to charge some attendees extra – $1,500 for individuals and $5,000 per couple – partly for the opportunity to get their picture taken with him, the complaint says.
– On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management, which falls under Zinke’s jurisdiction, removed 17,300 acres in Montana from an oil and gas lease auction set for next week. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, represented Montana in the House before he was tapped as Interior secretary and is considered a possible candidate for governor in 2020.
– In January, Zinke abruptly changed course and announced that Florida would be exempt from the Trump administration’s five-year plan to expand oil and gas exploration off the nation’s shores. Critics blasted the decision as a political stunt intended to benefit Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson this fall.
– Last July, Zinke called Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and warned that their state’s standing with the Trump administration might be in jeopardy because Murkowski did not support a GOP bill to repeal Obamacare. Zinke has no role over health care but does have jurisdiction over some energy and land-use issues in Alaska. The Interior Department’s inspector general dropped an investigation into Zinke’s call after Murkowski and Sullivan declined to be interviewed or provide statements.
Cabinet secretaries and other federal employees appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate are not barred from participating in political activities but are supposed to keep those actions separate from their official duties.
In cases in which official travel is involved and the secretary or employee attends a political event on the same trip, the travel costs must be divided between the federal government and the political candidate or organization. The Treasury must be reimbursed for the political portion of the trip.
The Office of Special Counsel issued an advisory in 2011 to help agencies make sure they follow the law.
But cases like Zinke’s trip to Pennsylvania are not as clear cut, experts say.
In assessing potential Hatch Act violations, “we generally look for explicit, campaign-type language,” Libowitz said. “Just appearing with someone is much more nebulous territory.”
Even if the Pennsylvania trip didn’t violate the law, “it would be hard not to see political overtones in all of this,” Schwellenbach said.
“Some of the stuff Zinke is doing, it certainly doesn’t look good,” he said. “Even if it’s not technically a violation of the law, he should be concerned about appearances. He’s not a member of Congress anymore. He’s the secretary of a major cabinet. Perceptions do matter.”
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