Ryan Zinke’s trip to Pennsylvania may have violated the Hatch Act

Congressional candidate Rick Saccone appeared at Interior secretary's announcement of abandoned coal mine funding.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. CREDIT: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s visit to a small town south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, less than three weeks before a special election, is drawing scrutiny to determine whether the official trip was really an opportunity to throw his support behind the Republican hoping to fill the open congressional seat.

Several politicians were on hand for the February event in East Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, reportedly organized to announce how much funding Pennsylvania will receive in abandoned mine grant funding. The most prominent politician on hand was Rick Saccone, a Republican candidate for Congress who has received strong support from President Donald Trump.

In Tuesday’s special election, Saccone is squaring off against Democrat Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 18th congressional district — a district that backed President Donald Trump by 20 points in 2016. They’re competing to replace Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA), who resigned last October.

Two high-ranking Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee, however, are requesting an investigation into whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act when “he used taxpayer funds to announce funding for coal mine reclamation at a site one mile away from the boundary of the 18th district of Pennsylvania.”

Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the top Democrat on the committee, and Donald McEachin (D-VA), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, requested U.S. special counsel Henry Kerner investigate whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act — a law prohibiting federal officials from campaigning with government funds.

In their March 7 letter, the lawmakers pointed out that Zinke’s trip raised red flags for at least five factors that the Office of Special Counsel considers in assessing potential Hatch Act violations: the presence of political candidates at an event; Zinke’s motivation for attending the event; the frequency of similar types of events during non-election years and whether Zinke had a history of attending those; the proximity of the event to the date of the election; and the presence of reporters at the event.

Taken together, these “red flags” provide more than ample justification for a full special counsel investigation, the lawmakers said. They added that the special counsel should attempt to determine Zinke’s reasons for making the announcement in a relatively small town whose own residents had no idea why the Interior secretary had appeared.

A local editorial by the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pennsylvania, called Zinke’s trip “baffling — to local residents, the media and, likely, those who planned his appearance.”

The request comes as Zinke faces ongoing investigations on multiple fronts, including his use of taxpayer money for personal and political travel as well as his potentially retaliatory reassignment of Department of the Interior professional staff and his threats against Alaska’s two Republican senators over the fate of the 2017 Republican bill repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Earlier in his tenure as Interior secretary, the Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit government watchdog group, was among the groups that requested the Interior’s Office of Inspector General look into whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act and conflict-of-interest laws by making the trip.

Another watchdog group, the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, noted in a tweet on Monday that Zinke is already facing scrutiny for “mixing politics with official government travel in Alaska and the Virgin Islands” and that “it shouldn’t be a surprise that people are now looking closely at a trip to Pennsylvania.”

Even Zinke’s wife, Republican operative Lola Zinke, is entangled in an ethics controversy over her travel habits and possible improper use of taxpayer funds. Government watchdogs are actively questioning whether she is taking advantage of the new platform provided by the Department of the Interior, at taxpayer expense, to gain access to powerful Republicans who can help raise her profile.

One day before the special election in the western Pennsylvania congressional district, Lamb was leading Saccone, 51 percent to 45 percent, according to a new public poll released Monday. Trump traveled to the district last weekend to hold a rally to offer his support to Saccone and to tout his presidency.

At last month’s event, Zinke announced how much funding Pennsylvania will receive in abandoned mine land grant funding and presented a check to local officials. The Black Dog Hollow abandoned mine site was about a half-mile from where Zinke spoke.

“From beginning to end, the event had the feel of a hastily arranged news conference/town hall meeting/political opportunity — depending on one’s perspective,” the Observer-Reporter of Washington, Pennsylvania wrote in an editorial.