U.S. agency probes Interior Secretary for possible Hatch Act violation

By Valerie Volcovici

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated a law barring executive branch employees from engaging in political activity when he gave a speech to a professional hockey team owned by a political donor in June, the agency said on Tuesday.

The investigation came after a watchdog group, the Campaign for Accountability, last week complained Zinke’s speech on June 26 to the Vegas Golden Knights, a National Hockey League team based in Las Vegas, violated the Hatch Act. The team is owned by Bill Foley, chairman of Fidelity National Financial Inc and a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaigns.

Interior Department officials said the speech did not violate any laws, rules or regulations.

The Office of Special Counsel’s Hatch Act unit, which is independent from the Justice Department, confirmed the investigation but declined to comment on it.

Zinke is already being investigated by the Interior Department’s inspector general to examine his travels and the use of private charter flights.

The investigations come amid heightened scrutiny into private plane use by administration officials. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned on Friday under pressure from President Donald Trump amid an uproar over his use of costly private charter planes for government business.

Melinda Loftin, the Interior Department’s designated ethics official and Edward Keable, director of Interior’s departmental ethics office, said in a joint statement that Zinke’s use of chartered flights and engagements were cleared by ethics and legal departments.

“The trip – including the Secretary’s address to the hockey developmental squad – was completely compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” they said.

The Campaign for Accountability questioned the travel.

“Contrary to the conclusion drawn by Interior officials, a trip to offer a motivational speech to a hockey team does not appear to fall within the mission of the Department of Interior – ‘protecting America’s Great Outdoors and Powering Our Future,'” the watchdog group wrote.

(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Andrea Ricci)