Did Ryan Zinke Pay Personal Legal Bills From Campaign Funds?

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As far as I can tell, I was the only one in Montana who reported on the lawsuit Ryan Zinke was embroiled in during his re-election campaign of 2016. The suit had everything you’d expect from Ryan and Lola Zinke: a refusal to pay bills to a church who rented the property to them, hyperbolic claims about the deficiencies of a house Zinke personally inspected before signing a lease, and even claims that “Commander Z” suffered emotional distress because he fell on a slippery porch he was too important to clear himself. I think he may have left that last detail out of his badass memoir.

Ultimately the suit was settled under seal so we’ll never know just how it turned out, but the whole episode fits the pattern so clearly established by the Zinkes: blaming others for their own failures.

And he may not have even paid for his legal representation during the suit.

A review of Zinke’s campaign finance reports leads me to wonder whether Zinke paid for his legal defense stemming from this personal lawsuit using campaign funds.

A review of the expenditures from the Zinke for Congress account at the FEC shows that the account paid the D.C. law firm of McDermmott Will & Emery $10,000 on November 10, 2017 and $1,718 on 12/19/2017.

Representing the Zinkes in their lawsuit against Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral were Sam Neel and Stephen Ryan, both of whom are employed by McDermott Will & Emery.

Interior did not respond to requests for information about the payments to the law firm.

It certainly wouldn’t be surprising, given the shady way Zinke has spent down his campaign funds. Even though he was nominated for Secretary of the Interior on December 16, 2016, stopped voting on House bills in January, and confirmed on March 1, 2017, Zinke kept spending money from his campaign in ways that seem hard to justify, including:

  • $57.65 at Montana’s Rib and Chop House on 6/19/2017
  • $55.95 at the Somers Bay Cafe on 6/9/2017
  • $2,315.52 at the Capitol Hill Club on 1/20/2017 for catering at an inauguration event
  • $48 at the Burger Dive on 6/7/2017

These small expenditures are not terribly significant, but part of a pattern the Campaign Legal Center uncovered in a complaint against Zinke that included using campaign funds for lodging in the U.S. Virgin Islands, $700 for lodging in New York City, and $500 for Amtrak. One assumes the last two were associated with Zinke’s meeting with Trump to discuss his appointment to Interior, hardly legitimate campaign expenses.

Zinke was also reimbursed $218 for a meal at Bernaise in Washington, D.C. and $314 for a “campaign dinner” in Santa Barbara, California–both dated December 31, 2016.

There’s a broad pattern of using campaign funds for personal expenditures here and, as CLC notes, a pattern of obscuring just who the money came from and who it was spent on. It would hardly be surprising to learn that Zinke used campaign funds to pay for his frivolous counter-suit against a church he failed to pay.

I don’t expect to get any clarification from Zinke’s staff, but I’ll report back if I do.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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