Government Watchdog Group Asks FEC To Investigate Interior Secretary Zinke’s Travel To Virgin Islands Fundraiser
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WASHINGTON — The Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, has asked the Federal Election Commission to probe Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s visit to a Virgin Islands fundraiser, Politico reports, and is also urging the department’s inspector general to investigate a “pattern of violations” of ethics regulations.
“In his short time in office, Secretary Zinke’s boundary-pushing — and, apparently, boundary-crossing — conduct has set a poor ethical example for the department’s staff,” the watchdog wrote in a draft complaint.
The complaint letters from the Campaign Legal Center, which cite several POLITICO investigations as evidence, increase the scrutiny the former Montana congressman has faced over his habit of mixing official travel and political events in the Virgin Islands and the mainland. The Interior inspector general’s office is already conducting a review of Zinke’s travel and campaign finance practices, which it expects to release by April.
The center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that monitors lawmakers ethics. Its senior director, Walter Shaub Jr., was director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics before stepping down after Donald Trump became president.
The Campaign Legal Center’s complaints also flagged a previously unreported trip in September when Zinke and two Interior staff members stayed two nights at the Four Seasons Resort in Dallas while he spoke at an conference organized by the National Rifle Association, which had donated $4,000 to his 2016 congressional campaign. An Interior ethics officer signed off on Zinke and the staffers spending $195 per room per night, according to travel documents.
During the trip, Zinke spent an hour at an “informal” luncheon with several oil industry executives and financial industry members who hadcontributed heavily to Trump’s presidential campaign. The lunch, which Interior’s trip schedules show was held to discuss “sports and conservation,” included Thomas Hicks, a Texas oilman who contributed $1,500 to Zinke’s congressional races and at least $8,100 to Trump’s presidential campaign, according to FEC data.
An Interior Department spokeswoman did not comment on the complaint.
Another luncheon guest was Gentry Beach, a Dallas-based hedge fund manager who helpedraise millions of dollars for Trump’s campaign. Beach and Hicks’ son, Thomas Hicks Jr., also helpedplan a controversial Inauguration Day event where groups would have paid up to $1 million to meet Trump. The event was canceled after local news reported on it.
After the luncheon, Zinke spent several hours at the Dallas Gun Club shooting range with NRA members. The private club charges a $7,000 application fee plus a $100 monthly membership dues. Zinke released several tweets at the event, writing: “Firearm & ammo sales add billions to conservation!”
The Campaign Legal Center in a separate letter it filed Thursday with the FEC asks for an investigation into a March fundraiser in the Virgin Islands that charged up to $5,000 for couples to take photos with Zinke. The fundraiser, first reported by POLITICO, has drawn scrutiny as neither of the event’s ostensible beneficiaries — a federal PACknown as the Virgin Islands Republican Party and the territorial party committee — has filed disclosure forms showing how much money itraised.
The VIGOP PAC has ties to a group of D.C.-area consultants and fundraisers, including Kimberly Bellissimo, head of direct mail company ForthRight Strategies and a board member at the American Conservative Union, which organizes the annual CPAC conference. Zinke, who established political fundraising organizations that funneled millions of dollars from small donors to Bellissimo-run businesses, is scheduled to appear on stage at the CPAC conference Friday.
Virgin Islands GOP Chairman John Canegata said in December that he planned to file paperwork documenting the fundraiser with territorial regulators.
The Campaign Legal Center notes in its complaint that Virgin Island Elections Systems Supervisor Caroline Fawkes said that Canegata has never filed such a finance report, either for the Zinke fundraiser or otherwise.
“The public remains entirely in the dark about which donors paid thousands of dollars to buy access to Secretary Zinke,” the Campaign Legal Center wrote in its complaint.
The VIGOP PAC reimbursed Interior for Zinke’s attendance at the March event, with the payment coming days after his appearance there was first reported.
The payment settled concerns that his attending the fundraiser may have violated the Hatch Act barring executive branch officials from using taxpayer funds to advance partisan causes.
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