“Shame on you for not respecting the office of a Member of Congress.”
That’s how the lead spokesperson for the Department of the Interior responded to a Politico reporter investigating her boss, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Ben Lefebvre, an energy reporter for Politico, wanted to learn more about Zinke’s use of government helicopters to travel to destinations within a reasonable driving distance from Washington.
Lefebvre reported Thursday that Zinke spent more than $14,000 on government helicopters this past summer “to take himself and staff to and from official events near Washington, D.C.”
Based on documents released to Politico in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, Zinke ordered a U.S. Park Police helicopter to take him and his chief of staff to an emergency management exercise in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on June 21. Zinke also ordered a Park Police helicopter to fly him and another Interior official to and from Yorktown, Virginia, on July 7 in order to be back in Washington in time for a late-afternoon horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence, according to the report.
The helicopter flight to Shepherdstown — a West Virginia town from which many people commute to Washington on a daily basis — cost $8,000. The trip to Yorktown — a three-hour car ride if traffic isn’t backed up on I-95 — cost about $6,250, according to the documents.
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, Zinke’s alleged misconduct has already drawn interest from investigators. The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General, for example, launched an investigation into Zinke’s travel in September after the Interior secretary acknowledged he used non-commercial and non-military aircraft on at least three occasions.
Politico’s investigation revealed that the Interior Department justified the use of the helicopter to travel to Shepherdstown by noting that Zinke wanted to attend the swearing-in ceremony for Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), a politician best known for assaulting a reporter for The Guardian and then lying about the incident to the police. Without the use of the Park Police helicopter, Zinke would not have been able to get to an “emergency management exercise” in Shepherdstown, Politico reported.
Gianforte’s assault of the reporter occurred during his campaign bid to win a June special election for Zinke’s old U.S. House of Representatives seat in Montana. The Republican easily won the election, despite widespread news coverage of Gianforte’s attack on the reporter. Gianforte and Zinke also have financial ties: Gianforte and his wife had contributed $15,800 to Zinke’s two successful congressional campaigns, according to Politico.
It was the question about the helicopter ride to West Virginia after the swearing in of Gianforte with which Swift took umbrage. “The swearing in of the Congressman is absolutely an official event, as is emergency management training,” Swift wrote in an email Thursday to Lefebvre. “Shame on you for not respecting the office of a Member of Congress.”
Swift previously worked for Zinke when he was a congressman from Montana. She has also worked for public affairs firms that represented companies like ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy — a past campaign donor to Zinke, according to The Department of Influence, a project created by the Western Values Project to document the revolving door between special interest lobbyists and political appointees at the Department of the Interior.
Zinke’s use of Park Police helicopters to the two events could result in yet another investigation of the Interior secretary’s travel practices. At a June event, Zinke met with members of Las Vegas’s new professional hockey team, the Vegas Golden Knights. The hockey team is owned by one of Zinke’s wealthiest campaign donors. 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.
The Interior secretary’s wife, Lolita “Lola” Zinke, also is entangled in an ethics controversy over her travel habits and possible improper use of taxpayer funds. Government watchdogs are actively questioning whether Lola Zinke, a Republican political operative, is taking advantage of the new platform provided by the Interior Department, at taxpayer expense, to gain access to powerful Republicans who can help raise her profile.
Zinke’s questionable use of taxpayer funds is occurring as he pushes policies that favor the energy industry. According to a new report released Thursday by the Center for Western Priorities, the degree to which the Trump administration has pushed to reverse regulations on the oil, gas, and coal sectors has shocked even the most optimistic in the industry.