A government watchdog has cleared Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke from improper political activity when he spoke to a professional hockey team owned by one of his campaign donors.
The Office of Special Counsel found "no evidence or allegation" that Zinke "gave a political speech or otherwise engaged in political activity during this event" with the Las Vegas Golden Knights in June 2017.
The speech drew attention because of travel costs and the event host. Zinke left the event on a $12,375 charter flight that "might have been avoided" if his schedule had been better arranged, the Interior inspector general found in a separate report this spring. Knights owner Bill Foley was "a major donor" to Zinke's 2014 campaign for Congress, and campaign finance records show Fidelity National Financial Inc. -- where Foley is chairman of the board -- has contributed nearly $155,000 to Zinke's campaigns.
"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," reads a letter dated May 31 from the Office of Special Counsel, citing a federal law governing how executive branch officials can engage in political activities.
While Zinke "appeared in his official capacity," his remarks were "about leadership and the importance of teamwork," the Office of Special Counsel letter notes. Zinke told the inspector general he spoke about his time as a Navy SEAL, and that he did not mention the Interior Department specifically, but that leadership is a core value of the department.
The Office of Special Counsel also "found no evidence that he violated the Hatch Act" on trips taken in his first seven months in office where Zinke held both official and political events. "OSC also found that the political portions of the trips were properly allocated, pursuant to Hatch Act regulations, and that DOI sought and received appropriate reimbursement for them."
The group that filed the complaint, Campaign For Accountability, said the letter does not satisfy their concerns.
"Though the Office of Special Counsel may have cleared Sec. Zinke of any technical violation, it's still rather obvious why he gave the speech to the hockey team," said Daniel Stevens, the group's executive director. "The truth is, Sec. Zinke charged taxpayers more than $12,000 for a charter flight so that he could give a speech to the employees of one of his top campaign donors. Sec. Zinke clearly gave the speech with his political future in mind despite his excuses."
On Wednesday, Zinke said in a radio interview the criticism of his decisions comes from "the opposition."
"It's just political rhetoric," Zinke told SiriusXM host Tim Farley. "At the end of the day, it's not going to deter me."
The letter was first reported by The Associated Press.