Interior Dept. watchdog finds Zinke’s private flights followed rules, but some cost could have been avoided
(WASHINGTON) -- The Interior Department's internal watchdog says that charter flights taken by Secretary Ryan Zinke did not violate any laws, but that the department could have avoided some of the cost in an interim report published Tuesday.
The department's inspector general found that three flights on private or military planes taken by Zinke generally followed the relevant rules and were all approved by ethics officials in advance. But the report found that the cost of at least one of the trips, a more than $12,000 flight from Las Vegas to Montana, could have been avoided.
In a letter to Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt last month the inspector general's office wrote that "we question the $12,375 cost for a chartered flight to give a 12-minute speech with no nexus to the DOI."
In his response, Bernhardt said he was concerned about that "glib" suggestion and that the report did include all the relevant information, although the department has made some changes to its approval process.
The report also found that Interior Department reimbursed the White House $52,000 for two flights that Zinke didn't take on Air Force One and Air Force Two. The inspector general found that the secretary was invited to travel with the president and vice president and the department was told they still had to pay for the flights even though his invitation to the event was revoked.
The department spent an additional $100,000 for four flights on Air Force One that Zinke actually took.
Zinke's use of charter or military planes was first confirmed amid questions about spending on travel for multiple cabinet officials last year when President Donald Trump fired former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price after it was reported that he spent more than $1 million on travel, including private flights. Since last year, government watchdogs have launched audits into spending on travel for multiple members of the president's cabinet.
Some cabinet members have been cleared of wrongdoing by these audits, like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin whose flights cost more than $800,000. An audit of his travel found that the secretary did not violate any laws.
A report by the Department of Veterans' Affairs inspector general found that former Secretary David Shulkin spent more than $120,000 on a trip to Europe that mostly include sightseeing with his wife. He has since been forced to resign.
An audit into travel spending by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to be released this summer.
The Interior Department's internal watchdog released an interim report on its audit of Zinke's travel Monday addressing his use of charter flights. The inspector general is still looking into other questions about his travel, including the use of department vehicles.
Zinke has consistently defended the use of the chartered flights, saying they were approved by department ethics officials and that there was no other option available to travel to places like northern Alaska. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was also on that trip to the Arctic Circle and said in a recent hearing there was no other way to get there.
He reportedly called the questions "a little B.S. on travel" during a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation last year.
An Interior Department spokesperson said Monday that all of the secretary's travel is approved by career officials in advance and that the report confirms that all of the flights followed proper procedure.
"This report said exactly what was known all along: The use of chartered aircraft ‘followed relevant law, policy, rules, and regulations. The uses and purposes of the flights also appeared reasonable for official DOI business,’" department spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement. "Additionally, the report shows that in every instance reviewed, the secretary’s staff consulted with and sought prior approval from the career ethics officials and travel lawyers, and that we follow their expert advice."
But the inspector general found that ethics officials did not have all the information about the $12,000 flight when they approved it and that department staff did not do enough to minimize the cost.
That flight was in June when Zinke spoke at an event for the developmental team for Las Vegas' NHL team the Golden Knights. He attended two other events in Nevada during that trip and then flew to Montana for an event in his hometown of Whitefish the next morning.
In a letter in response to the findings, Bernhardt said he thought the review did not take into account all of Zinke's official business on the trip, including meetings with department employees and local leaders. He also said that staff planning the trip asked if they could change the time of Zinke's speech to the Western Governor's Association the next day but that the WGA denied the request.
Bernhardt said in the letter that the department has made some changes to the process of approving travel, including increasing resources and staff in the ethics department.
In addition to the secretary's travel, there have also been questions about the cost of travel for Zinke's wife, Lolita, when she accompanied him on official trips. The inspector general told the department last year that the inquiry into the cost of the secretary's travel was delayed because of "absent or incomplete documentation," which a top department official attributed to organizational issues at the department that predate the current administration.
The agency's watchdog released another report last week where the inspector general found that there were not enough documents to determine if reassignments of senior officials at the department complied with the law. Several of the employees that were reassigned said they believed it was in retaliation for their work in areas like climate change.
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