The group of top Trump administration officials getting taxpayers to pay for their use of private planes has a new member. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reportedly charged taxpayers for the use of a private plane — owned by oil and gas executives — to travel from Las Vegas to his home in Montana.
Zinke is at least the fourth high-ranking official in the Trump administration to have used non-commercial planes at taxpayer expense. His use of a plane owned by energy industry officials comes as the Department of the Interior is pushing to making it easier for oil and gas companies to drill on federal lands.
On the day he took a flight on the jet owned by the energy executives, Zinke met with members of Las Vegas’s new professional hockey team, the Vegas Golden Knights. That night, Zinke took the private chartered flight to Kalispell, Montana, near his home in Whitefish, Montana, that cost taxpayers $12,375.
The final commercial flight connecting Las Vegas with Montana, where Zinke was headed on June 26, left at 6:50 p.m., giving the Interior secretary time to meet with the hockey team and then catch the flight. Instead, Zinke stayed past the flight’s departure and instead took a much more expensive private plane from Las Vegas to Montana at taxpayer’s expense.
Jay Nielson, the executive vice president of Nielson & Associates, an oil-and-gas exploration and production firm, co-owns the plane Zinke took to Montana through a holding company. Nielson told the Washington Post that the plane was chartered through a company called Choice Aviation.
Nielson’s grandfather, Glen Nielson, founded Husky Energy in the 1930s in Cody, Wyoming, when the company was called Husky Refining Company. The Nielson family sold their stake in Husky Energy, one of the largest oil and gas companies in Canada, in the late 1970s.
“Zinke joins the ranks of HHS Secretary Tom Price and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who flew private flights in lieu of commercial at taxpayer expense,” Center for Western Priorities, an environmental and conservation group, said in a statement Thursday.
The Las Vegas hockey team is owned by Bill Foley, a billionaire businessman who is chairman of Fidelity National Financial Inc., Zinke’s largest campaign contributor over the course of his career. Altogether, Fidelity Financial has donated $179,123 to Zinke since 2013 through its employees, its political action committee, and Fidelity National Information Services Inc., a related entity, E&E News reported.
Information has emerged in recent weeks about the use of private jets by other top Trump administration officials. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has come under fire for using military jets to travel overseas. Over the past eight months, Environmental Protection Administrator Scott Pruitt has been accused of ethics violations and misconduct. Reports emerged this week that Pruitt, Oklahoma’s former attorney general, has regularly used private chartered flights as EPA administrator.
Another cabinet secretary who has used private planes, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, declined Thursday to commit to only using commercial travel for the rest of his time at the agency after coming under fire for certain taxpayer-funded trips, CNN reported.
The latest reports about Zinke reveal a tangled web of meetings with political donors, a Koch-funded organization, and groups with no connection to his job as Interior secretary. The night prior to meeting with Foley’s hockey team, Zinke flew from Washington to Lake Tahoe for an event with the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a group sponsored by the Koch brothers, which supports Republican attorneys general. According to Zinke’s travel schedule, he was seated at a table with lobbyists from Koch Industries, the NRA, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“Here’s another case of a Trump administration official wining and dining with donors, lobbyists, and executives at the expense of taxpayers,” said Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities. Zinke’s Nevada trip to meet with the hockey team “was a flimsy excuse” for a political event in Lake Tahoe and “a thank-you meeting with his biggest campaign bundler,” Weiss said. “Then he saddles taxpayers with the bill for a private plane when he could have easily flown commercial.”
— Western Priorities (@WstrnPriorities) September 28, 2017
Department of the Interior ethics officials determined Zinke’s speech to the National Hockey League team in Las Vegas “was well within the department’s mission and it also was a key audience of people we are trying to target to use our public lands,” a department spokeswoman told E&E News.
Earlier this year, the Interior Department chartered two flights in March to take Zinke and staff from St. Croix to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to attend an event marking the anniversary of the Danish government turning the islands over to the United States. Another two flights were chartered to return to St. Croix later that night, according to Politico.