This post has been updated.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s wife, Lolita, played a key role in arranging aspects of her husband’s official events during the first few months of the administration, according to documents obtained by a Montana-based advocacy group under the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents, which include travel manifests and staff emails, detail the extent to which Lolita Zinke, who often goes by Lola, accompanied her husband on trips both overseas and outside of Washington during the first half of the year and weighed in on aspects of some events, including inviting specific attendees to a town hall where the secretary spoke to young conservatives.
In April, for example, Ryan Zinke’s special assistant Caroline Boulton conveyed a list of guests his spouse wanted to include at the Young America’s Foundation town hall forum at the group’s Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif. Lolita Zinke owns a home in Santa Barbara and accompanied her husband on his swing through California in mid-April.
“She’s expecting some of them to bring plus ones and also her list is not yet final,” Boulton said in one email. “She’s said that she doesn’t have emails for them all since many of them have been personally told about the event, but I wanted you to have the list!”
A little more than a month later, Interior staffers scrambled to overhaul travel logistics on a trip in Alaska after they learned Lolita Zinke wanted to attend a dinner with the state’s governor, Bill Walker (I), rather than return to Washington as planned.
“I have heard that Mrs. Zinke was now maybe not going to fly out from Fairbanks Sunday morning . . . so, I asked Annie if she happened to talk to Mrs. Zinke about her plans,” Russell Roddy, who directs scheduling and advance for the department, wrote to several colleagues in a May 27 email. “She said Mrs. Zinke said she was now going to head to Byers Lake and Anchorage with RKZ and fly out of Anchorage on Tuesday. UGH! We have all kinds of planes, trains and automobiles manifests to now scramble with.”
Boulton had cautioned Lolita Zinke in an email the previous week that she should not count on returning to Washington from Alaska on a military plane because the Pentagon might balk at allowing her to use if her husband were not aboard.
And in a May 18 email, Boulton copied a note from Senate aides coordinating a congressional trip to Norway, Greenland and Alaska, which read, “DOD doesn’t like it when members try to get them to fly their spouses home on MILAIR without the member on the flight. It would be a safer bet to have Mrs. Zinke travel commercial if she is not staying in Alaska that week.”
The documents were obtained by the Western Values Project, which sued Interior to comply with its FOIA request. They were first reported Monday by Politico.
“It shows that the department is being run in a way that is too loose, too reckless and should raise concerns about the bigger decisions that go on there,” the Western Values Project’s executive director, Chris Saeger, said in a phone interview Monday. “This is something that a lot of administrations don’t have a hard time getting right.”
Saeger added that his group sued for release of the documents because “the agency failed to meet its obligations” in responding to the request in a timely manner. “Whether due to underfunding or political interference, the sad reality is that litigation is often required to enforce the public’s right to transparency,” he said.
In an email, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift called the Western Values Project “a partisan hatchet group run by Democratic campaign staffers.”
Interior “incurred no expenses due to Mrs. Zinke’s presence” at the meal with Walker and his wife, according to Swift, who said the department provided the advocacy group with “the extensive list of documents once they were compiled.”
Some of the newly released emails show staffers making an effort to calculate the cost of her meals and transportation, including via a helicopter.
But Interior’s Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, whose office is probing the secretary’s travel practices, issued a memo earlier this month questioning the extent to which the department has been reimbursed for his wife’s travel costs. Kendall wrote that the department’s documentation was so lacking that investigators cannot determine “the full extent” of her trips and how it was paid.
Zinke’s wife is a Republican activist and chair of the campaign of Montana GOP candidate Troy Downing, who is challenging Sen. Jon Tester (D). She served as a volunteer on President Trump’s presidential campaign, working on outreach to the Hispanic community.
She has frequently accompanied her husband into official meetings, including one in April with California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), an outing that same month to California’s Channel Islands and that congressional delegation trip to Norway, Greenland and Alaska.