Government Watchdog Files Complaint Against Interior Secretary for Possible Violations of Hatch Act, Conflict of Interest Laws

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 29, 2017

Contact: Daniel Stevens, dstevens@campaignforaccountability.org, 202.780.5750

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Campaign for Accountability, a government watchdog group focused on public accountability, called on the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Interior to investigate whether Secretary Ryan Zinke violated conflict of interest laws and the Hatch Act by speaking before the National Hockey League team the Vegas Golden Knights as part of his official duties.

Read the complaint here.

CfA Executive Director Daniel Stevens said, “Interior argues that by speaking to a group of highly paid – mostly foreign – athletes, Sec. Zinke was reaching ‘a key audience of people we are trying to target to use our public lands.’ Shouldn’t Sec. Zinke be more focused on American families and how they can benefit from our national lands?  Rather than putting America first, Zinke is putting a top donor first.”

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported Sec. Zinke took a private charter flight in June after giving a “motivational speech” to the Vegas Golden Knights, a National Hockey League team based in Las Vegas, Nevada.  The Vegas Golden Knights are owned by Bill Foley, the chairman of Fidelity National Financial.

Campaign finance records indicate employees and PACs associated with Fidelity donated $199,523 to Secretary Zinke’s two congressional campaigns.   In addition, Fidelity National Financial and affiliates donated $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee.

Sec. Zinke has a longstanding relationship with Mr. Foley, previously referring to him as a friend, a “very, very bright guy” and “a major donor that steps in when he thinks he’s right. He just doesn’t support Republicans. He’s very careful about who he supports. His advice to me is you have to do what you say. Don’t yield to pressure. He’s got a Rolodex.” (emphasis added)

Federal laws require government employees to avoid using their positions “in a manner that could reasonably be construed to imply that his agency or the Government sanctions or endorses his personal activities or those of another.”  Sec. Zinke’s trip to Las Vegas for the purpose of speaking to an NHL team, whose owner has been a major benefactor to both Mr. Zinke and President Trump, seems to be a special favor provided to a major political supporter, in violation of conflict of interest laws.

Additionally, Sec. Zinke’s motivational speech may constitute prohibited political activity under the Hatch Act, which bars executive branch employees from engaging in political activity while on duty.

Stevens continued, “When is it going to stop?  President Trump’s cabinet officials seem to think the government only exists to serve their needs and enhance their careers.  It’s time for investigators to uphold the law and hold government officials accountable.”

CfA is nonprofit watchdog organization that uses research, litigation, and aggressive communications to expose misconduct and malfeasance in public life and hold those who act at the expense of the public good accountable for their actions.