Zinke’s travels: Ski resort and Alaskan steakhouse
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has attended at least two additional political fundraisers while traveling for official business, including a weekend ski getaway less than three weeks after he was sworn in that donors paid up to $3,000 to attend, according to sources and documents reviewed by POLITICO.
Zinke’s previously undisclosed attendance at the events adds to scrutiny he is facing over his habit of mixing political activities with official business when traveling outside of Washington, D.C., and to questions over travel expenses incurred by members of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. In addition to the fundraisers, Zinke has held at least a half-dozen other events with big donors or influential conservative organizations while on official trips.
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Zinke, a former Montana congressman who became secretary March 1, started his fundraising appearances even before attending a March 30 Virgin Islands Republican Party fundraiser in St. Croix that POLITICO reported last week, at which donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a photo with him. The Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel, which is investigating Zinke’s use of travel and political activities in office, has been asked by a watchdog group to look into his appearance there.
In the first of the newly disclosed appearances, Zinke attended a mid-March fundraiser at a ski resort in Big Sky, Montana, organized by committees affiliated with Republican Sen. Steve Daines, according to two attendees who saw him there. And in May, Zinke briefly stopped by a fundraiser for GOP Rep. Don Young at a steakhouse in Anchorage, Alaska, a spokesman for Young’s campaign told POLITICO.
All three fundraisers occurred on trips that Zinke took for official Interior Department business. The Hatch Act and other federal laws allow Cabinet secretaries to participate in partisan political activities only if they do so on their own time and do not use any governmental resources. Federal Election Commission records for the campaign committees do not list any reimbursement payments to Interior for the events.
“Both law and common sense tell us that taxpayer resources are supposed to be used when you’re doing the taxpayers’ business [but] are not supposed to be used to help candidates get elected,” said Brendan Fischer of the nonprofit watchdog organization Campaign Legal Center.
An Interior Department spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions about Zinke’s attendance at the events nor whether the campaigns reimbursed Interior for any of his travel expenses, but she said ethics officials sign off on the secretary’s trips and all of them comply with the law.
“The Interior Department under the Trump Administration has always and will always work to ensure all officials follow appropriate rules and regulations when traveling, including seeking commercial options at all times appropriate and feasible, to ensure the efficient use of government resources,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement.
Other guests attending the Montana fundraiser included Sens. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), according to an invitation to the March 17-19 event posted by a local political blog earlier that month. Donors were asked to contribute $3,000 if they were attending on behalf of a political action committee or $1,500 for an individual. Another invitation for events that weekend obtained by POLITICO sought donations as low as $500 to attend two dinners for Daines.
Hoeven hosted his own reception Friday night before the Daines dinner and a lunch Saturday, according to a campaign invitation obtained by POLITICO, which also informed guests that they could purchase “discounted ski lift tickets” at the resort.
Zinke was not named on the invitations, but his official schedule lists him as attending a “welcoming reception” for Daines on Friday night, spending “personal time with Senator Murkowski” at Big Sky Resort on Saturday and attending a “reception & dinner” for Daines that evening.
Two sources who attended the Daines fundraiser recalled seeing Zinke there. One of the sources, a lobbyist, said Zinke attended the Friday night social and the breakfast buffet the next day. The lobbyist said that when Daines introduced Zinke, the Montana senator mentioned that Zinke was the state’s first Cabinet secretary.
The Hatch Act bars Zinke from taking part in political events while acting in his official role as Interior secretary, which includes being identified by his title in invitations. But Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota professor and former White House chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, said Daines referring to Zinke’s Cabinet position doesn’t appear to violate the law.