Watchdog clears Zinke on Golden Knights speech

Watchdog clears Zinke on Golden Knights speech
© Greg Nash

An independent watchdog on Tuesday cleared Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior's border surge puts more officers in unfamiliar role Not 'if' but 'when' is the next Deepwater Horizon spill? Former Wyoming GOP lawmaker mulling Senate bid to replace Enzi MORE of wrongdoing after he stirred controversy with a speech he gave to the Las Vegas Golden Knights hockey team last year.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) gave Zinke the all-clear following an investigation into the speech he gave to players in Las Vegas last June, according to a May 31 OSC letter first reported on by The Associated Press. The office found that Zinke did not violate the Hatch Act, a law that prohibits government employees from making endorsements in an official capacity.

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The Campaign for Accountability was the first to request an investigation into a Hatch Act violation by OSC.

Zinke first came under fire for the trip due to the fact that he had to use taxpayer money to charter a private plane from Las Vegas to make it to another scheduled event in Montana.

The team is owned by Bill Foley, a billionaire businessman and board chairman of Fidelity National Financial Inc., who heavily donated to Zinke's first congressional campaign in Montana, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Foley donated the maximum contribution amount of $2,600 in 2013 and 2018. Chicago Title Services, which is owned by Fidelity, donated $23,900 to Zinke's campaign.

In the letter Erica Hamrick, OSC deputy chief of the Hatch Act unit, wrote that Zinke addressed the team in his role as Interior secretary and they found no evidence that he engaged in politics.

"There is no evidence or allegation, though, that Secretary Zinke gave a political speech or otherwise engaged in political activity during this event," Hamrick wrote to Daniel Stevens, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability. "And the fact that the team is owned by a political donor is not enough for OSC to conclude that he engaged in prohibited political activity in violation of the Hatch Act."

An OSC spokesperson declined to comment for the story, saying it was against policy to comment on open or closed investigations.

In April, Interior's Office of Inspector General found the chartered flight Zinke took to make his meeting in Montana from Las Vegas was avoidable.

The inspector general found that Zinke's chief of staff Scott Hommel was responsible for authorizing the trip to meet with the Golden Knights, an NHL team in Las Vegas, but found that the trip was not properly vetted by the Interior ethics officials who signed off on his use of a $12,375 chartered flight.

The reason for the improper vetting was in partially due to the fact that officials were not provided with enough information from Interior staff, the report found. Those facts included that the owner of the Golden Knights helped bankroll Zinke's run for Congress in Montana.

"If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight. Moreover, had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion," the inspector general's office wrote.

The Interior Department did not return a request for comment.