Trump’s Interior chief ‘hopping around from campaign event to campaign event’

By: Ben Lefebvre and Esther Whieldon, Politico, October 5, 2017

Republican donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a photo with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at a fundraiser held during a taxpayer-funded trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to documents reviewed by POLITICO — raising questions about his habit of mixing official government business with political activism.

The new details about Zinke’s March trip to the Caribbean, including the previously undisclosed invitation to the Virgin Islands Republican Party fundraiser, emerged after weeks of scrutiny of the former Montana GOP congressman’s travels. The nearly two-hour event was one of more than a half-dozen times Zinke has met with big donors or political groups while on department-paid trips, Interior travel records and other documents show.

Ethics watchdogs say Zinke is combining politics with his Interior duties so frequently that he risks tripping over the prohibitions against using government resources for partisan activity, even though his appearance at the Virgin Islands event seems to have been legal. Democrats have also seized on the issue, including 26 House members who wrote in a letter Tuesday that Zinke’s travels “give the appearance that you are mixing political gatherings and personal destinations with official business.”

Zinke has said all his actions have obeyed the law, dismissing concerns about his travel as “a little BS.”

But some ethics advocates say Zinke’s attendance at a fundraiser during his first month as secretary is not in line with past administrations’ conduct, even if he crossed no legal red lines.

“Some of this travel is clearly political and that part of the travel should have been paid for by the RNC, NRCC, state political parties, a campaign committee or Zinke personally,” said Daniel Stevens, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability.

The Campaign for Accountability called on Interior’s inspector general and the Office of Special Counsel to investigate whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act or department ethics rules with his speech to the hockey team, which the group said appeared to be a favor for a donor. Interior’s IG office announced its investigation earlier this week, and OSC told the Campaign for Accountability that it was looking into the group’s complaint, according to an email shared with POLITICO. The OSC declined to comment.

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