Ryan Zinke taps almost $40,000 from wildfire preparedness fund to pay for a helicopter trip

Helicopter flights taken by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke were incorrectly charged to a federal wildfire preparedness fund. CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Over the past year, President Donald Trump and his top officials have made a habit of refusing to admit they make mistakes.

A common refrain from Trump officials is they “have nothing to apologize for,” whether it’s Trump giving an extremely partisan speech at last summer’s Boy Scout jamboree in West Virginia or his administration accusing the British government of working with the Obama administration to illegally surveil Trump Tower in New York City.

In a rare acknowledgement of error, the Trump administration’s Department of the Interior admitted it made a mistake by trying to use wildfire preparedness funds to pay for helicopter rides taken by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that had nothing to do with wildfires. The admission came only after a news organization inquired about the account used to pay for the trip.

Zinke’s office initially told Newsweek that the costs of the Interior secretary’s July 30, 2017, helicopter ride in Nevada could be legally covered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Interagency Fire Center, even though Zinke did not visit fire zones that day. After follow-up questions by Newsweek, the Interior Department admitted in late December the helicopter rides, listed as costing $39,295, were charged to the wildfire account “in error” and that the flights would be charged to a more appropriate account.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a government watchdog group, views the accounting method initially used for Zinke’s helicopter ride as extremely troublesome. “Ryan Zinke’s caused a lot of controversy with his private flights, but none have been as egregious as using wildfire preparedness funding to pay for a trip that had nothing to do with wildfires, while a wildfire ravaged California,” CREW wrote in a tweet Monday.

The use of the fire center account for Zinke’s helicopter rides occurred in the same year that the western United States saw some of the worst wildfires in the nation’s history. During his helicopter ride, the Detwiler wildfire raged in Mariposa County, California, starting on July 16 and ending on August 24. It burned about 82,000 acres and destroyed about 63 homes. In Oregon, the Chetco Bar wildfire started on July 12, burning about 191,000 acres before it was contained in early November. It was the eighth largest wildfire in Oregon history.

In September, the Agriculture Department said that due to fires in the West, Pacific Northwest, and Northern Rockies over the summer, wildland fire suppression costs for the fiscal year had climbed above $2 billion, “making 2017 the most expensive year on record.”

Zinke has come under intense scrutiny for his travel practices, more than any other current Trump cabinet official. The Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General 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.

Zinke’s Nevada helicopter trip is not the first time his use of helicopters has proved controversial either. 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 Politico.

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 obtained by Politico.

Zinke himself has refused to apologize for his use of private charter flights for government business. In fact, Zinke told reporters in October that criticism of his taxpayer-financed travel “complete and utter bullshit” and driven by politics.

In the rare admission of error, though, an Interior Department spokesperson told Newsweek that Zinke’s $39,295 helicopter ride “was charged to the account in error” and that the BLM would pay for the helicopter from “a more appropriate account.”

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the group Democracy Forward and shared with Newsweek showed that an Interior Department staffer sent an email that said Zinke would probably not be able to get to a Nevada fire line because his schedule wouldn’t allow it. The department still concluded that the BLM would be able to pay for the helicopter out of the national fire office in Boise, Idaho, Newsweek reported.

The Zinke helicopter flights were billed to the National Interagency Fire Center under the category of preparedness. Those funds are earmarked for such uses as worker pay and to purchase equipment, according to Newsweek. The National Interagency Fire Center coordinates federal wildfire fighting resources.

Other questionable travel by the Interior secretary in 2017 included a June event at which 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.