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Interior Department Nomination Could Bring Questions About Super PAC Ties

Zinke has received strong support from conservative PACs.

After much speculation about which oilman or pro-development donor would get the nod to run the Interior Department, multiple news sources have reported President-elect Donald Trump has picked Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (R).

Having been a U.S. Navy SEAL from 1986 to 2008 and a Montana state senator from 2009 to 2011, Zinke is a relative newcomer to the Washington political sphere.

But the freshman representative — who secured his second term last month — has already collected over $10.5 million in campaign contributions in his short federal career. Besides retired people, who have given him about one-tenth of his total, Zinke has received strong support from ideologically-driven conservative PACs and congressional leadership PACs, which have donated roughly $764,000 and $271,000 each.

A member of the House Natural Resources Committee and the Armed Services Committee, the Montana Republican has received at least $345,000 from the oil and gas industry over the years. Fracking giant Oasis Petroleum is his second-biggest donor ($46,800), following Fidelity National Financial and Fidelity National Information Services, which together have given about $179,000.

Oasis Petroleum, which owns a North Dakota well that leaked more than 67,000 gallons of crude oil last year and another that blew out and killed two workers in 2011, has been a major donor for a number of pro-industry lawmakers, including North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer (R). A key energy adviser to team Trump, Cramer has been a strong supporter of the hotly-contested Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline. He donated $1,000 to Zinke’s campaign in late October.

Little surprise, then, that Zinke seems to be in line with Trump and Trump’s other nominees in being friendly to fossil fuel development.

He’s been a particularly outspoken advocate of the fourth phase of the Keystone Pipeline project, expected to carry American oil through Montana and North Dakota but halted by President Obama. And unfortunately for environmentalists and other protesters celebrating the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ recent decision to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction while other routes are explored, an Interior Department lead by Zinke could play a big role in resurrecting both projects.

A Very Friendly Super PAC

Zinke has also received campaign support from a super PAC, Special Operations for America, which spent $192,538 helping him get elected in 2014. And therein may lie a sticky situation: The super PAC was founded by Zinke in 2012. That year, the group spent $7,000 advertising against Obama but wrote checks totaling four times that amount — $28,258 — to Zinke’s own company, Continental Divide International, for “fundraising consulting.”

Then, on Nov. 20, 2013, the super PAC started making independent expenditures supporting its founder’s campaign. Zinke’s financial disclosure report from 2014 shows he had resigned as the chairman on Oct. 1, 2013, Campaign Legal Center Associate Counsel said.

What’s problematic is that Zinke’s 2015 financial disclosure report, covering the 2014 calendar year, still listed him as chairman of the super PAC.

“Super PACs are supposed to be independent from the campaign, and this is just not by any measure independent,” said Brendan Fischer, associate counsel at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center.

Neither Zinke nor representatives of Special Operations for America could be reached by the time of publication.

CLC filed a complaint with the FEC about possible coordination between the super PAC and Zinke’s campaign in connection with photos used in the super PAC’s pro-Zinke ads, but the FEC hasn’t taken any action on the matter yet.

“What’s interesting about the Zinke and SOFA arrangement was that the Zinke founded the group, raised money for the group, spent some money, resigned, hired his successor — the fundraiser for the group — and then announced his candidacy,” Fischer said.

This cycle, the super PAC spent only about $192,000 on independent expenditures, including $524 in support of Zinke. Instead, it spent the majority of its funds — over $1 million — on printing and shipping, paying about $926,000 to a vendor called Consolidated Mailing Services and $216,000 to another, Direct Support Services.

Another big client of Direct Support Services this election was Zinke’s leadership PAC, Supporting Electing American Leaders (SEAL). The PAC had a very successful election cycle, raising a total of $3 million, most notably from retired individuals and oil and gas industry donors.

But only about $88,000 of the $2.6 million the committee spent this cycle actually went to federal and state candidates, including Cramer, and party committees. Several checks ranging from $1,000 to $70,000 — a total of $736,000 — went to Direct Support Services over the past two years. Overall, the PAC instead spent the bulk of its resources — about $740,000 — on soliciting and fundraising.

Zinke’s campaign also paid about $547,000 to Direct Support Services this cycle.

Zinke, a former board member and a current stock owner of a Santa Barbara-based oil company QS Energy (formerly known as Save the World Air), has also been involved in a kerfuffle over whether he’s actually a resident of Montana. The Whitefish address he lists as his residence on FEC forms was approved for use as a bed and breakfast, according to a Montana blog, and neither he nor his wife own property in their names in the state — although Zinke’s company, Continental Divide International, does. And his wife has identified herself as a Californian, which is in fact where she’s from and where she still spends significant time.

Zinke has denied allegations that he resides anywhere but Montana.

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