A government ethics watchdog has cleared Ryan Zinke of allegations that as interior secretary he violated federal rules and orchestrated a grant announcement to influence a special election in Pennsylvania, according to a letter obtained by CNN.
The Office of Special Counsel “investigation found no evidence that you violated the Hatch Act during this event,” the letter reads.
The Hatch Act generally bars federal employees from using government resources for political purposes. The Office of Special Counsel, which is separate from Robert Muller’s investigation into Russian election meddling, investigates allegations of violations, and explained its findings in a letter to the Interior Department dated Monday.
Asked about the letter, Zinke, who left the Trump administration at the beginning of January, told CNN on Tuesday the conclusions are “no surprise.”
“Every false allegation and subsequent investigation has resulted in the same conclusion: I followed all rules, regulations, and most importantly the law,” he said.
He said disproved allegations have the effect of “destroying the reputation of those who are willing to serve our great nation.”
In February 2018, Zinke announced decisions on mine cleanup grants at an abandoned coal site, including $55 million in grants for Pennsylvania sites, the letter notes. The announcement took place less than a month before and a mile outside of the district where the special election for a seat in Congress would be held. The Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, was then a state legislator and attended the event. He would go onto lose the election to Democrat Conor Lamb.
“OSC’s investigation found that the evidence established that DOI had official, nonpolitical, reasons for making the grant announcement at the Black Dog Hollow site,” the letter reads. It found other local elected officials also attended the event, and Saccone “did not have a speaking or other preferred role.”
In a letter last March requesting the investigation, Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the committee overseeing Interior, had argued the location “seemed puzzling to locals,” and noted Zinke later appeared on Fox News discussing the Pennsylvania special election.
Zinke remains under a separate Office of Special Counsel investigation into whether he influenced a US Senate race in Florida when he announced the state’s waters would be pulled from consideration for offshore drilling. Then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who narrowly won the election, was the only governor to receive such assurances. That probe “remains open,” the letter says.
A separate Justice Department investigation into Zinke remains ongoing. It was referred by the Interior Department inspector general rather than the Office of the Special Counsel. The Justice Department has not commented on that investigation or the scope.