Investigators have found that former interior secretary Ryan Zinke violated federal law by tweeting out a picture of himself wearing socks adorned with the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!”
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the independent agency that investigates possible Hatch Act violations, found in December that Zinke broke the 80-year-old law, which restricts most federal employees from using their positions in government to engage in partisan politics. Like many other Trump officials, Zinke did not face any consequences for the violation beyond a warning.
Zinke, who resigned from President Trump's Cabinet amid multiple probes of his conduct in office, wore the socks during a hike at an official government event in June at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. A photograph of Zinke wearing the blue-and-red socks emblazoned with the president's face, which was tweeted by the secretary's official government Twitter account, drew immediate scrutiny.
“Secretary Zinke engaged in political activity when he wore the above-referenced socks,” Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act Unit at the Office of the Special Counsel, wrote in a Dec. 20 letter to Campaign for Accountability, a left-leaning nonprofit watchdog organization. The letter, which was not previously released to the public, was provided to The Energy 202.
“Because Secretary Zinke wore these socks to an official event and also authorized their display on his official Twitter account, he violated the Hatch Act’s prohibition against using his official position to influence an election,” she wrote.
The conclusion of the investigation came at the tail end of Zinke's tenure — after he submitted his letter of resignation, but before he officially left office. Zinke received a warning letter on Dec. 20 informing him of the breach, according to Zachary Kurz, spokesman for the Office of the Special Counsel. That was five days after he submitted his resignation under pressure from the White House. Zinke left his post in January.
Official guidelines for federal workers specify that donning “Make America Great Again” gear while on the clock is prohibited. Zinke avoided punishment because, soon after learning the tweet could violate the law, he directed his staff to delete the post and issued an apology.
Ryan Zinke wore “Make America Great Again” socks during a government event while he was interior secretary. (Twitter)
"[W]e do not believe that his violation was willful,” Galindo-Marrone told the Campaign for Accountability, which originally filed a complaint over the socks last year with the Office of the Special Counsel.
Zinke was pushed out of the administration because of an inquiry into a Montana land deal he struck with the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton, which the Department of the Interior’s inspector general referred to prosecutors at the Justice Department.
Daniel Stevens, the executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, said investigators' findings undermine Zinke's claim that he did nothing wrong in office. “This contributed to the downfall of Zinke, in my opinion,” Stevens said.
Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said she was not surprised by the Office of the Special Counsel's determination, calling Zinke's actions “a really clear violation of the Hatch Act.”
Cabinet officials are often spared the harshest possible sanction under the law, which is decided by the president but could include a civil penalty of as much as $1,000, a reduction in grade or the removal from office.
Presidential hopeful Julián Castro, the secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama, was previously found to have violated the Hatch Act by praising Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary in an interview with journalist Katie Couric, though OSC did not propose any penalty.
So was Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's secretary of health and human services, who weighed in on the North Carolina gubernatorial election in 2012 during an official speech. She reimbursed the government for travel to the state.
Zinke is hardly the first Trump official to run afoul of the anti-campaigning law. In November, the OSC determined that a half-dozen White House officials violated the Hatch Act when they used their official Twitter accounts to promote political messages in support of Trump. Like Zinke, the six officials, which included principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah and deputy director of communications Jessica Ditto, received warning letters rather than disciplinary action after deleting the tweets.
At least one Trump official, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, has been unapologetic about her previous violations.
Speaking to the press last week, Conway put down former vice president Joe Biden, a contender in the 2020 presidential race, which prompted reporters to remind her of her previous run-ins with the Hatch Act. Last year, the Office of the Special Counsel said she violated the law by weighing in on the 2017 special Senate race in Alabama.
“Blah, blah, blah,” Conway said. “If you're trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it's not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
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