Watchdog Asks Feds to Look at Interior Secretary’s Campaign

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signs orders on his first day in office. (Photo: Department of Interior)

WASHINGTON (CN) – A political watchdog claims Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s dormant congressional campaign committee likely used money from the campaign’s coffers to benefit Zinke’s family and friends.

In a complaint filed Monday with the Federal Election Commission, the Campaign Legal Center says Zinke’s campaign bought an RV from his wife, Lolita Zinke, for more than $59,000 and then sold it to his friend a year later for just $25,000.

The watchdog group, represented by in-house attorneys Brendan Fischer and Catherine Hinckley Kelley, claims the June RV sale is just one of several transactions that may have provided illegal benefits to Zinke’s family or friends.

The CLC also points to hotel stays in the U.S. Virgin Islands and New York City that Zinke’s campaign paid for after the Montana Republican and first Navy Seal to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives was tapped to join then-President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet.

In addition, the congressional campaign allegedly paid thousands in catering expenses incurred after Zinke was confirmed as secretary of the U.S. Interior Department.

According to the CLC’s complaint, Zinke’s campaign may have used a joint fundraising committee to allow donors to give money to his campaign above federal contribution limits, and failed to report tens of thousands of dollars in contributions.

The complaint also alleges Zinke has not disclosed the dates of key expenses from the end of last year. In one of its reports, his campaign said it made a $22,744 payment to a credit card on Dec. 31, but it itemized those costs – including for lodging, travel, and meals – as happening on the same day.

“By listing all of these transactions as having occurred on the same date, Zinke for Congress disguised their true timing, and therefore obscured their relationship — if any — to Zinke’s duties as a candidate or officeholder,” the complaint states. “In the absence of a connection to those duties, there is reason to believe the payments for hotel rooms, travel expenses, and meals in locales such as the Virgin Islands, New York City, and California may have constituted personal use of campaign funds.”

The filing continues, “After Zinke was confirmed as Interior Secretary on March 1, 2017, he was no longer a member of Congress. And as Interior Secretary, he is prohibited under the Hatch Act from being a candidate for office. As a result, many of Zinke for Congress’ expenditures after March 1 likely violated the personal use ban.”

The Zinke campaign made a number of payments for events reported as occurring after he was sworn in as interior secretary, according to the CLC.

His campaign paid $2,315 to the Capitol Hill Club on March 12 for “event catering,” and $1,750 for “Senate catering” was sent to the same address over the next two months, according to campaign finance records cited in the complaint.

Zinke for Congress did not respond Monday to an email requesting comment on the allegations.

The CLC wants the Federal Election Commission to investigate the congressional committee and assess penalties for any violations.

Adav Noti, senior director of trial litigation and strategy at CLC, said in a statement that the FEC must enforce the longstanding ban on using campaign money for personal benefits.”

“A campaign’s most basic legal obligation is to publicly disclose its major donors, so the Zinke campaign’s failure to provide that information is very concerning,” Noti said. “And selling a major campaign asset to the candidate’s friend at half price is inherently suspect.”

Attorney Fischer, who signed the CLC complaint, added, “The public has a right to know who is funding a candidate and how a candidate is spending that money, but Zinke has disregarded even these basic accountability requirements.”

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