Interior Department launches third investigation into Sec. Zinke’s alleged misconduct

The latest investigation is over charter flights — an issue that has plagued the Trump administration.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, speaking at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017, defended his use of chartered flights. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, speaking at the Heritage Foundation on September 29, 2017, defended his use of chartered flights. CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

From taking chartered flights for non-business-related matters to allegedly calling Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) to threaten her if she did support the Republicans’ attempt repeal Obamacare, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s alleged misconduct is under growing scrutiny not only from the press but from with his own agency.

Speaking at a right-wing think tank last Friday, Zinke vowed not to change his travel habits, but his defiance came as the Department of the Interior’s inspector general was opening an investigation into his use of taxpayer-funded chartered planes for both official and unofficial trips. The investigation represents one of at least three ongoing probes into Zinke’s conduct at the Interior Department.

House Democrats asked the Interior Department’s inspector general for the newest investigation after Zinke and his wife took taxpayer-funded charter and military flights. Zinke’s wife, Lolita Zinke, is the chairperson of the campaign of Troy Downing, who is hoping to get the Republican nomination to run against Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), an incumbent who will be seeking reelection in 2018. Downing is a California businessman who lives part-time in Montana.

“Because the secretary’s spouse is leading a senate campaign in Montana, taxpayer funded travel for Mrs. Zinke, especially to or from Montana, deserves heightened scrutiny,”  Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA) wrote in a letter Monday to the inspector general’s office. Grijalva is the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. and McEachin is ranking member on the Committee’s oversight subcommittee.

Aside from Zinke’s travel practices, the Interior Department’s office of inspector general also is conducting a probe into his decision to transfer about 50 senior federal employees to new positions inside the department. The inspector general is also investigating reports that Zinke made phone calls pushing Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to support the Republicans’ effort to repeal Obamacare or risk losing federal support for economic development in Alaska.

“Secretary Zinke’s willingness to deliver these threats speaks volumes about his ethical standards and demonstrates that Interior’s policy positions are up for political grabs, rather than based on science or the public interest,” Grijalva said in a statement.

In a speech at the Heritage Foundation last week, Zinke described concerns about his use of chartered planes as “in the words of General Schwarzkopf, a little ‘b.s.’ on travel.” He claimed chartered flights were only used when “no commercial flights existed to meet” his official schedule.

Zinke failed to mention that in the instance of at least one of the flights in question, the scheduled event was a speech to a hockey team owned by one of Zinke’s wealthiest campaign donors. At that June event, Zinke met with members of Las Vegas’s new professional hockey team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Instead of taking a commercial flight that left a few hours earlier, Zinke took a private chartered flight to Kalispell, Montana, near his home in Whitefish, Montana, that cost taxpayers $12,375.

In defense of missing the commercial flight, an Interior Department spokesperson told E&E News that department ethics officials determined Zinke’s speech to the hockey team in Las Vegas “was well within the department’s mission” because the hockey team represented a “key audience of people” the Interior Department is “trying to target to use our public lands.”

The inspector general’s office investigation into Zinke’s travel is “at its earliest phases,” Politico reported, quoting a spokesperson with the inspector general’s office.

Meanwhile, other cabinet members are giving Zinke a run for his money as the most ethically challenged top official in the Trump administration.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has run up nearly a million dollars in controversial spending since taking office, maintaining a massive personal security detail, an unnecessary soundproof phone booth and nearly $58,000 worth of private chartered and military flights.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that Pruitt meets regularly with company officials in industries that the EPA oversees. Since taking office in February, Pruitt has “held back-to-back meetings, briefing sessions and speaking engagements almost daily with top corporate executives and lobbyists from all the major economic sectors that he regulates — and almost no meetings with environmental groups or consumer or public health advocates,” the newspaper wrote.

Using private jets has already cost one cabinet secretary his job: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned last week after Politico reported that he took chartered flights, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Forcing Tom Price from office does not come close to answering questions in the Trump administration about the abuse of taxpayer funds when Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt are unrepentantly wasting hundreds of thousands on their own luxurious travel and sticking hardworking Americans with the bill. They deserve Price’s fate and should be removed from office immediately,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said.