Ryan Zinke joined the growing ranks of Republican candidates for Montana's U.S. House seat last month, attracting increased scrutiny of not only his military and political career but also of the actions of his year-old super PAC, Special Operations for America. Now Zinke, who stepped down as SOFA's chairman three weeks before declaring his candidacy, is facing allegations that he funneled funds from donors across the country to his own Whitefish-based consulting firm, Continental Divide International.
Between July 2012 and May 2013, SOFA disclosed payments to CDI to the tune of $34,757.73. In recent media reports, Zinke excused those payments as reimbursement for travel he undertook as chairman—a claim at least partly corroborated by SOFA's filings with the Federal Election Commission. Three payments to CDI totaling $8,440.62 from late last year were specifically flagged as reimbursements for Zinke's trips to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, a Conservative Political Action Conference in Denver and several other out-of-state appearances. However, the remaining $26,317.11 was paid for a mix of "fundraising consulting" and "strategy consulting."
Zinke isn't the only SOFA staffer to benefit professionally from this apparent financial shell game. SOFA paid out $86,499.85 over the past year to Battle Plan Strategies, a New York company owned by SOFA treasurer Scott Hommel. Those expenditures were made for "administrative consulting," "administration" and "strategy consulting."
Since its inception, SOFA has only disclosed one election-related independent expenditure: $7,000 for a radio ad last October opposing President Obama's reelection. SOFA's activity shifted this fall to running an active "Draft Zinke" campaign on social media, just days after Zinke resigned his chairmanship.
Despite recent criticism, SOFA hasn't toned down its Zinke boosterism. The super PAC is supporting one other 2014 candidate—Republican Congressman Tom Cotton of Missouri, now running for the U.S. Senate—but much of its website remains dedicated to trumpeting the Zinke name. Zinke's own campaign website is lackluster in comparison, with only a video of his candidate announcement. SOFA even went so far as to promote a "Happy Birthday Ryan Zinke!" message Nov. 1 on Facebook.
All these revelations make it increasingly difficult to tell where SOFA ends and Zinke's campaign—not to mention his personal finances—begins.