Republican donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a photo with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke at a fundraiser held during a taxpayer-funded trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to documents reviewed by POLITICO — raising questions about his habit of mixing official government business with political activism.
The new details about Zinke’s March trip to the Caribbean, including the previously undisclosed invitation to the Virgin Islands Republican Party fundraiser, emerged after weeks of scrutiny of the former Montana GOP congressman’s travels. The nearly two-hour event was one of more than a half-dozen times Zinke has met with big donors or political groups while on department-paid trips, Interior travel records and other documents show.
…The secretary is already under investigation by his department’s inspector general over his use of taxpayer-funded private planes for some of the trips, and the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel is looking into an activist group’s allegations that he violated the Hatch Act, the law limiting political activism by federal employees.
Zinke visited the Virgin Islands from March 30 to April 1 on an official trip related to the Interior Department’s role overseeing the U.S. territory. On his first day, following a “veterans meet and greet” and a reception with Gov. Kenneth Mapp, he appeared in his personal capacity at a March fundraiser for the local Republican Party at the patio bar of the Club Comanche Hotel St. Croix, department records show.
Tickets for the fundraiser ranged from $75 per person to as much as $5,000 per couple to be an event “Patron,” according to Zinke’s official calendar and a copy of the invitation.
The following day, Zinke took a $3,150 flight on a private plane, paid for by the department, from St. Croix to official functions on St. Thomas and returned later that evening.
Zinke is allowed to engage in partisan political activity in a “purely personal (not official) capacity,” so long as he does not use government resources, according to Interior Department guidelines on the Hatch Act and other federal laws.
…All told, Zinke has spent around $20,000 for three charter flights as secretary, nowhere near the $1 million tab Price racked up on non-commercial trips. But he has on numerous occasions attended political receptions, spoken to influential conservative groups or appeared alongside past campaign donors during trips he takes outside of Washington, D.C., for official department business.
In one instance, Zinke gave a motivational speech for a professional hockey team owned by a major campaign contributor that he said was official business — and which required him to charter a $12,000 flight to Montana for an appearance at the Western Governors Association the next day.
…Swift did not respond to questions about whether the department had gotten reimbursement for the political portion of Zinke’s three-day Virgin Islands trip, as the head of one watchdog group says it should have.
“Some of this travel is clearly political and that part of the travel should have been paid for by the RNC, NRCC, state political parties, a campaign committee or Zinke personally,” said Daniel Stevens, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability.
No payments to the department are listed in the Virgin Islands Republican Party’s FEC records.