By day, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke stays busy undoing rules that formerly protected priceless natural wonders like the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and Gold Butte in Nevada from commercial exploitation.
And in his off-hours, Politico reports today, Zinke works to drum up business for a group of Washington-based political consultants who some of his fellow Republicans have accused of ripping off party donors.
Already the target of two investigations for traveling at public expense to partisan events, Zinke is drawing scrutiny from GOP activists over his relationship with Scott B. Mackenzie, a Republican operative who allegedly operates “scam PACs,” political fundraising committees that put only a tiny fraction of their money into helping candidates.
In March, when Zinke’s official duties took him to the Virgin Islands, he found time to serve as the guest of honor at a $5,000 per couple fundraising event put on by a Mackenzie PAC, VIGOP, in St. Croix. Before that, Politico said, Zinke steered much of the money he raised as a congressman from Montana to Washington, D.C.-area consulting firms connected to Mackenzie.
Scam PACs use what Federal Election Commission leaders consulted by Politico have called a loophole in campaign finance law. In 2012, the FEC refused to punish one Mackenzie PAC, the Conservative StrikeForce, after then-Rep. Allen West complained that it raised money from his supporters by falsely implying that it would help his reelection campaign.
The FEC apparently concluded that while the Mackenzie group’s actions were what commission lawyers called “troubling,” they were beyond the FEC’s authority to sanction.
Adav Noti, a former FEC associate general counsel who now works for the nonprofit watchdog Campaign Legal Center, told Politico that as an FEC official he dealt with the Virgin Islands group and Mackenzie and believes ‘They are a scam-PAC.’
“Scott Mackenzie has a number of scam-PACs,” Noti said. “He was probably the first, or one of the first, with the idea of bilking people out of money through PACs. People are being defrauded, and that needs to stop.”
Politico reports that SEAL PAC, a “leadership” political committee created by Zinke in Montana, focused its fundraising last year on small-dollar donors, collecting about two-thirds of its $3 million haul in contributions of $200 or less. But SEAL PAC spent more than $2.6 million of that money on overhead; just $118,000 went to congressional campaigns across the country that the committee claimed to be helping.