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Ethical questions cloud Zinke’s SEAL PAC

The PAC raises money from small donors and advertises its backing of conservative veterans, but nearly a quarter of recipients never served

Ryan Zinke, a former SEAL, tells donors his PAC supports conservative military veterans.
Ryan Zinke, a former SEAL, tells donors his PAC supports conservative military veterans. (William Campbell/Getty Images)

In a TV ad released in January, a half-dozen black-and-white photos appear one after another, showing U.S. military personnel in uniform, hard at work defending America. They are old photos of servicemembers who have since become politicians.

“These former Navy SEALs have protected America from enemies all over the world,” the male narrator intones, as the photos roll past.

Then, just as a headshot of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., appears on the screen, the narrator says: “Now they have one grave threat left to defeat.”  

The ad was for the Supporting and Electing American Leaders Political Action Committee — known as SEAL PAC — one of several fundraising groups run by former GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, who was Interior secretary under former President Donald Trump and is running for a new House seat Montana gained through reapportionment.

Zinke’s group has appealed to patriotism — and applied wartime rhetoric to politics — to great effect, raising millions of dollars, mostly from small donations averaging about $50.

SEAL PAC’s ads all strongly suggest the group raises money solely for Republicans who are military veterans. The group’s “mission,” its website says, is “electing conservative veterans.” The site depicts numerous SEAL PAC-backed candidates — with military service affiliations noted for each and every one. 

But the reality is different. A CQ Roll Call analysis has found that nearly a quarter of the 129 candidates who have gotten SEAL PAC money so far in the 2022 election cycle never served in the U.S. military. Nearly all of those nonveterans are GOP members of the House and Senate, a group that largely supports Trump.  

If SEAL PAC is using the military’s positive public image as bait to secure donations for not just veterans but also for entrenched nonveteran politicians, that is not the only ethical question that has arisen about the group. Concerns have also come up about how little money the group spends on candidates at all, as opposed to “operating expenditures.” And both Zinke and SEAL PAC’s executive director, Rob Catron, have been ensnared in allegations of wrongdoing.  

Power brokers who never served

SEAL PAC raised more than $9 million in the 2020 election cycle and has netted more than $5.7 million in the current one.

The beneficiaries in the 2022 cycle include many Republican politicians who never served in the military, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California; Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana; and Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the House Republicans’ campaign chief.

SEAL PAC is also backing Harriet Hageman, another nonveteran, in her race to unseat Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol and is vice chair of the committee investigating the insurrection.

Moreover, the recipients of SEAL PAC’s donations, whether they are veterans or not, tend to oppose legislation to greatly expand veterans benefits.

The most noteworthy is a pending measure that would cover medical care for American military personnel who believe they were sickened by toxins they ingested from burning trash pits on overseas battlefields. More than eight out of 10 voting House Republicans — and the majority of SEAL PAC-backed candidates — did not support that bill and instead backed a less expensive version. With widespread Democratic support, the bill passed 256-174. A bipartisan Senate compromise is now awaiting a floor vote. 

MAGA motive

What appears to unite SEAL PAC candidates at least as much as their military service, opposition to costly veterans benefits or support for higher military spending is fealty to Trump. In fact, SEAL PAC has sometimes supported nonveterans who are Trump allies over conservative veterans who are not.

For example, in the May 24 Republican primary for Georgia’s 2022 Senate nomination, SEAL PAC donated $5,000 to Herschel Walker, the former football star and political neophyte whom Trump recruited and who won the primary. Zinke’s group did not support another conservative contender for that nomination, Latham Saddler, who served eight years as a Navy SEAL officer, but who got just 8.8 percent of the vote to Walker’s 68.2 percent in a six-candidate race. 

Likewise, Marjorie K. Eastman, a decorated Army combat veteran, a military spouse and a conservative Republican, found out this year, she said, that SEAL PAC is not exactly what it seems, when she sought funding from the group to help her campaign for the GOP Senate nomination in North Carolina.  

SEAL PAC’s Catron told Eastman in an April 12 email that the group was backing one of her two main rivals for the GOP nomination, Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., who ultimately won the May 17 primary and was backed by Trump.

Burn pits

Budd never served in the military and, while he has supported some veterans programs, voted in March against the House burn pits bill, a measure that Eastman vocally supported.

Most veterans groups supported the House bill.  

Jeremy Butler, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s chief executive officer, said in an interview that the measure is an important indicator of support for veterans.

“IAVA expects Congress to listen to veteran groups to understand why it is so important to ensure the veterans community receives the benefits they earn and deserve,” Butler said. “That is never more true than when it comes to helping those exposed to toxins while serving overseas.”

Eastman, meanwhile, who served a tour in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, said she felt deceived by SEAL PAC’s public presentation of its purpose.

“North Carolina voters are misled by a ‘veteran organization’ endorsing Budd,” said Eastman in an email to CQ Roll Call a few days before the primary, which Budd won with 59 percent of the vote in a 14-candidate field. “I am the combat veteran and military spouse in this race. The irony must be pointed out — that they are supporting a candidate that voted against veterans,” she added, a reference to Budd’s vote against the burn pits bill. “Any organization that misrepresents veterans or veteran support must be held accountable.”

Choosing candidates

SEAL PAC’s Catron acknowledged in an interview that some of the candidates the group supports never served in the military. But he said there are a number of good reasons for that. It makes sense to support powerful GOP incumbents like McCarthy and Scalise, he said. Other candidates got support because they are friends of Zinke, he added. 

And some, such as Eastman, did not get SEAL PAC’s backing because they were not considered viable candidates, he said, noting that Eastman received 2.9 percent of the vote. 

“While we appreciate her military service,” Catron said of Eastman, “supporting her candidacy would have been a misallocation of SEAL PAC donor resources. We supported Rep. Budd because of his proven pro-military and pro-veteran record.” 

As for the rhetoric in the January TV ad, Catron said SEAL PAC did not intend to equate Pelosi with terrorists, and he said Democratic ads have been “a whole lot worse.”

High overhead

SEAL PAC and some of its personnel, including Catron, are shadowed by ethical questions beyond whether the group represents its purpose accurately to the public.

Only about 12 percent of the roughly $5.8 million the group has spent so far in the 2022 election cycle has gone to candidates, and some 87 percent has gone to the group’s operating expenditures, a CQ Roll Call analysis of federal records shows. 

In the 2020 election cycle, the group spent just 5 percent of the more than $9 million it raised on candidates, records show. The PAC spent another $1.7 million, or 18 percent of its donors’ contributions, on digital ads supporting 30 candidates for House and Senate. Even with that spending, nearly 75 percent of the PAC’s funds went to operating costs. 

The Center for Responsive Politics reported in 2019 that some two-thirds of the group’s money at that point had gone to a handful of Washington, D.C., vendors that shared the same personnel and addresses.

Catron blamed the high cost of stamps and paper as the main reasons for the high operating costs, and he said the organization spends as much “as humanly possible” on candidates.

But Michael Beckel, research director at Issue One, a bipartisan advocacy group that seeks to reduce the role of money in politics, said spending so much on operating costs and so little on politics is unusual for a PAC. 

“Fundraising professionals often say it takes money to raise money, but if you’re spending so much money on overhead and operations that you only have a paltry sum left over to spend on actual political contributions, it raises serious questions about your operation,” Beckel said via email.

Absent cases of fraud, however, federal election law currently permits PACs great flexibility in who or what they spend their money on, experts said. Nothing on the books strictly requires that PACs must support only the kind of candidates they say they are supporting. 

Ethical questions

Catron, meanwhile, confirmed he is under indictment over an allegation about another campaign he worked on as a consultant. A Virginia Beach grand jury has charged him with 10 counts of making a false statement and election fraud, a felony.

The charges arose out of a petition fraud scandal in former Virginia Republican Rep. Scott Taylor’s unsuccessful 2018 reelection campaign. Taylor allegedly sought to get a third-party spoiler candidate on the ballot to take votes from Taylor’s rival, Democrat Elaine Luria, who is now in her second term.

Catron said he has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is due in court again in December.

Allegations of scandal have dogged Zinke too, but most of them have not stuck. 

Zinke is a former Navy SEAL himself. Before running the Interior Department from 2017 to 2019, he was Montana’s House member from 2015 to 2017.

Zinke had to resign from his Cabinet post amid multiple probes of alleged ethics violations. At one point in late 2018, nine investigations of Zinke had been closed, either because they were not corroborated or due to lack of cooperation. For instance, he was cleared in one investigation that looked into his taxpayer-funded travel to the Virgin Islands for a GOP fundraiser.

Catron suggested the various probes were politically motivated and that no allegations were proved.

This past February, though, the Interior Department inspector general reported that Zinke had misused his office by involving himself in a land deal after signing an ethics agreement that prohibited such involvement — and then lied to investigators about it, the IG said.

As recently as this month, Politico raised questions about whether Zinke’s primary residence is really in Montana, where he claims his main home is located, or in Santa Barbara, Calif., where his wife lists her primary residence.

The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan advocacy group, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission in 2017 alleging that Zinke had failed to report tens of thousands of dollars in political donations and that his campaign had engaged in questionable spending. 

The center charged that the Zinke campaign bought a motor home in 2016 from Zinke’s wife for $59,100, spent thousands of dollars maintaining it, then sold it the following year to a friend for just $25,000.

“If the campaign paid Zinke’s wife above market rate for the vehicle, or sold it to Zinke’s friend below market rate, then it illegally converted funds to personal use,” the group said in a statement at the time. 

The FEC dismissed the complaint, saying then that the amount of money at issue was not large enough to warrant a probe, according to a spokesman for the center.

Herb Jackson, Mary Ellen McIntire, Stephanie Akin and Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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