As Zinke Stumbles Continue, Top Committee Democrats Request Investigation of Potential Campaign Law Violations

Washington, D.C. – Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, sent a letter today to Special Counsel Henry Kerner, head of the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), requesting an investigation of whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits electioneering by federal officials at taxpayer expense, when he recently traveled to rural Pennsylvania to announce $300 million in federal grants to clean up abandoned mine lands (AML) throughout the country. Zinke’s speech took place just outside a congressional district set to hold a special election on March 13, and the Republican candidate for that seat attended the event without his Democratic counterpart being present.

The letter, available at http://bit.ly/2HaP4JV, comes shortly after Kerner found White House advisor Kellyanne Conway violated the Hatch Act twice in her illegal, unsuccessful attempts to sway the outcome of the Senate race in Alabama.

As the authors note in today’s letter, Zinke traveled to a volunteer firehouse in East Bethlehem, Pa., on Feb. 24 to announce the grants, which included nearly $56 million for sites in Pennsylvania. The grants were part of an annual round of federal cleanup funds and offered Zinke no apparent reason to travel to East Bethlehem.

The letter points out that Zinke’s trip raises red flags for at least five “factors” OSC considers in assessing potential Hatch Act violations: the presence of political candidates at an event, Zinke’s motivation for attending the event, the frequency of similar types of events during non-election years and whether Zinke had a history of attending those, the proximity of the event to the date of the election, and the presence of reporters at the event.

Taken together, Grijalva and McEachin write, these red flags provide more than ample justification for a full OSC investigation. The authors write that OSC should attempt to ascertain Zinke’s reasons for making the announcement in a relatively small town whose own residents, according to local media coverage, had no idea why Zinke had appeared.

The authors point out that Zinke’s trip also included an appearance on Fox News that started off with questions not about Zinke’s announcement or other Interior Department business but about the state of the nearby special election:

The tagline on the screen below the Secretary’s image said “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Pennsylvania Race Seen as Bellwether for Midterm Election.” The lead-in question from Fox News host Neil Cavuto was “Republicans could lose four seats at a minimum in this state just with that redistricting. Are you worried?” [. . .]

Secretary Zinke cannot be held responsible for the actions of Fox News. However, if he knew ahead of the interview that it would be political in nature and accepted it, it could speak to the motivation for announcing the AML funding at the border of the 18th district of Pennsylvania.

Grijalva and McEachin write that, taken together, “the evidence is sufficient to warrant a full investigation.”

The request comes as Zinke faces ongoing investigations on multiple fronts, including his use of taxpayer money for personal and political travel – an issue that reportedly cost him a promotion during his tenure as a Navy SEAL – as well as his potentially retaliatory reassignment of DOI professional staff and his threats against Alaska’s two Republican senators over the fate of the 2017 Republican bill repealing the Affordable Care Act.

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