By: Daniel Stevens
New revelations about Ryan Zinke’s unethical conduct seem to break every day. Whether it’s jetting off on private planes, flying his personal flag over the interior Department’s headquarters, or speaking to foreign hockey players on behalf of a campaign donor, Sec. Zinke doesn’t seem to get out of bed in the morning without running afoul of ethical norms.
This is all the more surprising given that Sec. Zinke’s first meeting at the Department was reportedly with agency ethics officials.
Now that watchdog groups have been drawing attention to Sec. Zinke’s misdeeds, critics are lashing out, claiming we are filing complaints simply because we don’t like his policies. While I can’t speak for others, my organization, Campaign for Accountability, is nonpartisan government watchdog. We’ve filed numerous complaints against officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations, and as well as against members of Congress of both parties.
Contrary to the allegations made by critics, ethics is a nonpartisan issue. The reason that my group and others have filed so many complaints against Sec. Zinke is that his conduct is reprehensible. The Interior Department’s Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel are both investigating his actions.
It’s notable that Sec. Zinke has a history of unethical conduct. In 1999, the Navy found Zinke, then a Navy SEAL, had improperly billed the government for two flights to his home to Montana, forcing him to reimburse the government for some of the costs.
It’s not that my organization dislikes Sec. Zinke’s policies, it’s that Sec. Zinke refuses to follow the rules.
The Hatch Act is clear. Federal officials are prohibited from engaging in political activity in their official capacity. While Sec. Zinke can attend political events, he must do so on his own time. His travel to such events cannot be at taxpayer expense. Sec. Zinke, however, charged the Interior Department $12,375 so he could fly home to his house in Montana on a private jet after speaking to a hockey team owned by a major donor to his congressional campaigns and the Trump inaugural. Sec. Zinke’s spokesperson laughably tried to claim that this constituted official business because the mostly foreign hockey players were a “key audience of people we are trying to target to use our public lands.”
Last week, reporters unearthed two additional examples of trips where Sec. Zinke may have charged the Interior Department for travel expenses related to political events.
Finally, Sec. Zinke appears to have violated ethics rules by endorsing a fundraising firm he used during his 2014 campaign for Congress. Until Wednesday, an endorsement from Sec. Zinke appeared on the firm’s homepage. The firm’s CEO claimed that the quote is two years old. Even if that’s true, members of Congress are bound by the same rules so Sec. — formerly Congressman — Zinke violated the rules either way.
It’s interesting that the firm Sec. Zinke praised has been the subject of criticism itself. Conservative commentator Erick Erickson, has denounced the firm’s CEO for operating dubious political committees –often referred to as scam PACS — that pretend to raise money for conservative causes while she pockets most of the money raised.
During a speech in September, Sec. Zinke told an oil industry group that 30 percent of Interior Department employees are “not loyal to the flag.” Recently, though, we learned that Sec. Zinke requires a security staffer to fly his own personal flag over the Interior Department headquarters whenever he’s in the building. This tradition is unheard of at other federal agencies, but Buckingham Palace does hoist a flag when the Queen of England is present.
Ethics is about conducting oneself in manner that is beyond reproach and following the rules. It’s amazing that in just seven months, Secretary Zinke has demonstrated a pattern of disregarding the rules. It’s time for investigators to hold him accountable.
Daniel E. Stevens is the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, a nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog group based in Washington, D.C.