The Ongoing Mystery of Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Appearance at a Virgin Islands Fundraiser

Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons

Big questions remain about who paid for access to the Secretary of the Interior after the Federal Election Commission (FEC) dismissed Campaign Legal Center’s (CLC) complaint arising from Ryan Zinke’s appearance at a Virgin Islands (VI) fundraiser.

In March 2017, Zinke hopped on a private plane to appear at a fundraiser for what his official calendar described as a “Virgin Islands GOP Event” while he was in the territory for an official trip.

Attendees paid up to thousands of dollars to attend the fundraiser; top donors could take a photo with Zinke (which raised Hatch Act concerns).

But because the VIGOP never reported its contributors, we still don’t know who paid thousands of dollars to access Zinke.

The VIGOP has a murky history, at best. It is distinct from the territorial Virgin Islands Republican Party, which functions as the local party on the island and has had its own share of dramatics. The VIGOP, in contrast, is a federal PAC that reports to the FEC; despite being called the “VIGOP,” it is not recognized as a party committee.

Instead, the federal VIGOP operates as little more than a scam PAC. VIGOP largely uses direct mail to raise small dollar donations from conservatives around the country (many of them elderly) with promises to support candidates or causes—but, instead, it uses the funds raised to line the pockets of consultants, and to raise more money.

Every election cycle draws new accusations of the VIGOP scamming supporters. In 2018, Mia Love accused the VIGOP of using her name to raise money, but never supporting her election. The VIGOP’s treasurer, Scott MacKenzie, is treasurer for dozens of other scam PACs. Last year, the FBI raided the offices of MacKenzie’s consulting firm.

Zinke has long had a relationship with MacKenzie and VIGOP. That relationship continued after he became Interior Secretary, with Zinke chartering a plane so he could attend VIGOP’s March 2017 benefit.

But the VIGOP did not disclose raising any money from that fundraiser on its FEC reports—even though it reported paying for catering and other costs related to the event, including a small reimbursement to the Interior Department for the apparent costs of Zinke’s travel.

In response to CLC’s complaint, the VIGOP told the FEC that Zinke’s event was actually a fundraiser for the territorial committee, rather than for the federal VIGOP. Given “the lack of contrary information,” the FEC effectively concluded that this was a matter for territorial authorities. 

Here’s where it gets weird.

In early 2018, the territorial party committee finally filed what was apparently its first report ever with the Virgin Islands authorities. On its very tardy report, the territorial committee disclosed raising only $9,875 at the March 30, 2017 event, all of it supposedly raised in “mass collections”—which means cash, which means that no donor identities are itemized or disclosed.

This minimal disclosure did little more than raise further questions.

For one, it seems quite likely that the fundraiser collected more than $9,875. According to POLITICO, which obtained a copy of an invitation to the event:

Tickets for the fundraiser ranged from $75 per person to as much as $5,000 per couple to be an event “Patron,” according to Zinke's official calendar and a copy of the invitation. Patrons and members of the host committee, who paid $1,500 per couple, could get a photo with Zinke at the start of the event, which was attended by local party members and elected officials.

Zinke’s official calendar stated that 50-75 individuals would be in attendance, and named one “Patron” couple who presumably contributed $5,000, and two “host committee” members who presumably contributed $1,500.

The total haul would be considerably higher than $9,875 if any other attendees paid at the “patron” or “host” level to get a picture with Zinke, if the attendance was in the upper range of the estimate on Zinke’s calendar, or if any attendees contributed above the $75 entrance fee.

For another, the claim that this was all collected in cash is highly dubious, if not entirely implausible. It is unlikely every single guest paid in cash at the door, including those who paid thousands of dollars for VIP tickets. What’s more, even if they did all pay in cash, under Virgin Islands law, anyone who gave more than $100 should have been identified—but we haven’t seen a single donor’s name disclosed.

So the Interior Secretary took a chartered flight to a fundraiser for a shady political operation, donors paid thousands of dollars to take a picture with Zinke, every single person at the fundraiser (supposedly) paid in untraceable cash, and thousands of dollars that were presumably raised at the event may remain unaccounted for.

Over a year later we still don’t know who paid thousands of dollars to attend the event with Zinke. Complaints are still pending with the Interior Department’s Inspector General and with Virgin Islands authorities.

Maggie is a researcher and investigator, following leads on campaign finance issues.
Brendan directs CLC’s work before federal regulatory agencies, such as the Federal Election Commission (FEC).