Zinke Endorsement of Fundraising Firm Targeted in Complaint

By Kenneth P. Doyle

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s endorsement of a political fundraising firm – highlighted on the firm’s website – violates federal ethics rules barring government officials from endorsing commercial services, the nonprofit watchdog Campaign for Accountability said Oct. 11.

The group, known as CfA, called on the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to investigate whether Zinke violated the prohibition on federal employees endorsing private entities. Zinke’s endorsement appeared on the website of the direct mail marketing and fundraising firm ForthRight Strategy, which was reviewed by Bloomberg BNA early on Oct. 11.

“You guys are in large part why I had the money and support that afforded me the opportunity to become a Congressman for the at-large seat in Montana,” said Zinke’s quote on the firm’s website.

A later review of the website showed the Zinke endorsement had been removed. Forthright Strategy didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.

Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift suggested to Bloomberg BNA in an email that Zinke’s comment on the firm’s website appeared to be a quote from his days in Congress. Zinke, a former Republican U.S. House member from Montana, served in Congress from 2015 to 2017. Before that, he was a state legislator in Montana.

Swift didn’t provide an immediate comment regarding whether it was appropriate for the Forthright Strategy website to continue highlighting Zinke’s endorsement after he became Interior secretary.

Firm Raised $1.9 Million for Zinke

Daniel Stevens, a spokesman for CfA, said it was inappropriate for Zinke to endorse a commercial service either as a congressman or a Cabinet official. Stevens added that it was likely Zinke knew the firm was using his comment as an endorsement because of their apparent close relationship. Stevens noted the amount of money Zinke’s campaign paid the company and how much it raised for him in contributions.

CfA said Zinke used the firm for fundraising during his congressional campaigns, paying nearly $800,000 for its services. The firm’s website said it mailed over 1.6 million pieces for Zinke’s 2014 congressional campaign and raised over $1.9 million in gross revenue.

CfA compared Zinke’s case to that of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway. Earlier this year, OGE concluded that Conway had violated ethics rules by endorsing Ivanka Trump-branded products. The White House counsel’s office said it reminded Conway of ethics rules but no other action has been taken against her.

Speech to NHL Team Questioned

Previously, Zinke and several other top officials of the Trump Administration have been criticized for using expensive charter aircraft for travel. Zinke also has been criticized for alleged violations of restrictions on involvement in political activity by federal employees.

In a separate action the week of Oct. 2, CfA called on the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General to investigate whether Zinke violated conflict-of-interest laws and the Hatch Act by speaking before the National Hockey League team the Vegas Golden Knights as part of his official duties. Both agencies have opened investigations into Zinke’s conduct, CfA said.

The Hatch Act limits political activity by federal officials. Recent news reports said Zinke traveled earlier this year by private plane to Las Vegas, where reportedly he gave a motivational talk to the city’s new NHL team.

The team is owned by William Foley, the chairman of title insurance company Fidelity National Financial. Foley and his company’s employees have been a major source of funding for Zinke’s past congressional campaigns, according to analysis of Federal Election Commission disclosure reports by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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