A federal government watchdog cleared former Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke of allegations he violated the Hatch Act by attempting to influencing a special election in Pennsylvania, according to a report.
In a letter obtained by CNN, the Office of Special Counsel wrote an “investigation found no evidence that you violated the Hatch Act during this event.”
The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees expending government resources for political activities.
The Office of Special Counsel is a separate body from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the 2016 presidential election.
In a statement to CNN, Zinke said the probe’s conclusion was “no surprise.”
“Every false allegation and subsequent investigation has resulted in the same conclusion: I followed all rules, regulations, and most importantly the law,” the former Trump administration official said, adding that unfounded allegations have the potential 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.
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.
“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,” reads the special counsel’s letter. It found other local elected officials also attended the event, and Saccone “did not have a speaking or other preferred role.”
In a separate investigation, the Special Counsel is still probing whether Zinke sought to influence Florida’s Senate race between then-Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson by announcing the state would be exempt from offshore drilling. Scott is said to have been the only governor to be granted an exception.
Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and Montana congressman, served as Interior Secretary from 2017 until his resignation on January 2, 2019.