Zinke, Mnuchin Travels Raise Still More Questions

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gets a tour from National Park Service employees at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, during a three-day trip to assess hurricane damage. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gets a tour from National Park Service employees at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, during a three-day trip to assess hurricane damage. Alan Diaz / AP

The array of issues swirling around Trump Cabinet members’ taxpayer-funded travel now include potential violations of the Hatch Act.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Tuesday was reported by Politico to have attended two political fund-raisers during official travel and leisure trips, raising questions about whether he properly complied with Hatch Act restrictions on mixing politics with government business.

Separately, the Treasury Department inspector general’s office confirmed that it had received new documentation that prompted it to reexamine its earlier conclusions about the propriety of Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s use of military and pricey commercial flights.

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Zinke, Politico disclosed, has attended at least three “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 the publication reviewed.

Those trips were to the Virgin Islands; Big Sky, Montana; and Anchorage, Alaska. “Zinke has held at least a half-dozen other events with big donors or influential conservative organizations while on official trips,” the report said.

His mixing of travel purposes is under review by the Interior Department’s inspector general.

The newest wrinkle is whether Zinke has violated the Hatch Act. While Cabinet members may conduct partisan political activities, rules require them to do so on their own time, with their own resources, and without invoking their government job title. An Interior spokesman said Zinke’s travels were approved by ethics officials and were compliant with the law.

The former congressman’s potential Hatch Act issues also were raised by a watchdog group called the Campaign for Accountability. On Wednesday, it requested an Office of Government Ethics investigation of Zinke’s endorsement of a commercial fundraising firm he used on past campaigns.

ForthRight Strategy, a direct mail marketer for conservative candidates at the state and federal level, showcases a quote from Zinke on its home page that reads: “You guys are in large part why I had the money and support that afforded me the opportunity to become a Congressman for the at-large seat in Montana. Your results and personal commitment to Team Zinke were bar none! I greatly value the professional as well as the personal relationship we have developed over many years! Thank you!”

Daniel Stevens, executive director of the ethics group, said, “What we’ve learned this week is that Secretary Zinke thinks the rules don’t apply to him. Whether it’s jetting away on chartered planes or using his position to aid his allies, Sec. Zinke seems to think public service is about lining his own pocket.” 

Mnuchin’s use of military flights had been examined by the Treasury inspector general and found to have been basically in compliance with ethics rules because the trips were for White House support. But in an interview with CNN Money on Tuesday,  Inspector General Rich Delmar said he had since learned that the department had not received accurate information on an August Mnuchin trip to Trump Tower in New York City.

Treasury had originally provided the IG with documents indicating that Mnuchin had traveled from Washington on a military jet to a New Jersey airport with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and budget director Mick Mulvaney at a cost of $15,000. “But a Treasury spokesperson told CNN that Mnuchin had taken a commercial flight to New York on Aug. 15,” CNN reported.

Mnuchin has said he needs the military flights for “access to secure communications.”

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