For the last couple of months, a number of President Trump’s cabinet members have come under fire for taking advantage of taxpayer funds. His Health and Human Services Secretary, Tom Price, even lost his job after spending more than $1 million on overseas travel.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is also currently under investigation for his own unnecessary travel expenses, which include upgrading several commercial flights to private or military planes.
In response to the investigation, Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Zinke’s department has claimed that the upgraded flights were only booked because officials weren’t able to find any commercial flights that worked with the secretary’s schedule. Swift also said that all flights were “pre-cleared by career officials in the ethics office.”
In addition to the questionable flight upgrades, though, Zinke is also facing scrutiny after a new report from POLITICO has revealed that he attended at least two political fundraisers during recent business trips.
One of these fundraisers was held at a ski resort in Big Sky, Montana in mid-March and was organized by committees affiliated with Republican Senator Steve Daines. Donors paid up to $3,000 to attend this weekend event.
Zinke also attended a fundraiser for Republican Rep. Don Young at a steakhouse in Anchorage, Alaska in May and has held “at least a half-dozen other events with big donors or influential conservative organizations while on official trips.”
Zinke’s appearances at these events appear to be a violation of the Hatch Act, a federal law that only allows Cabinet secretaries to participate in partisan political activities if they do so on their own time without utilizing government resources. Records from the Federal Election Commission don’t list any reimbursement payments from the campaign committees to the Interior Department for Zinke’s travels to the events.
Brendan Fischer, who works for the nonprofit watchdog organization Campaign Legal Center, told POLITICO about Zinke’s potential legal violation:
‘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.’
Richard Painter, a University of Minnesota professor and former White House chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, also said that Zinke “should take reasonable steps to make sure people aren’t using his official title” and should not use the title himself at political events.
Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations at Project On Government Oversight, added that Zinke should be focused more on his official responsibilities than on attending fundraisers.
‘There’s always the risk that a high-level government official spending more time involved in political events may not be attending to their official duties.’
When asked about the latest accusations against Zinke, Swift didn’t deliver specific answers about the secretary’s behavior. Instead, she released a generic statement saying that ethics officials had signed off on all of Zinke’s trips.
‘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.’
Featured image via Alex Wong/Getty Images.