An investigation into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s travel showed that an exorbitantly priced charter flight from Las Vegas to Montana last year “could have been avoided” had the department’s ethics officials known his true reason for speaking in Vegas.
In a report released Monday, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General determined that ethics officials who reviewed the trip before the secretary’s departure “likely would not have approved” it as an official event since it “did not mention Zinke’s position as Interior secretary or the activities of the DOI.”
Had the speech in Las Vegas, where he addressed young hockey players affiliated with the Golden Knights hockey team, been rejected as an agency-sanctioned event, that would have eliminated the need for the $12,357 chartered flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Mont., where he was scheduled to speak at a meeting of the Western Governors’ Association, the investigation said. Furthermore, “had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner, William P. Foley II, had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion.” The charter jet was owned by a Wyoming oil and gas exploration firm.
But while the flight from Las Vegas deserved more scrutiny, the report said, Zinke’s other travel aboard chartered and military aircraft costing nearly $200,000 “in fiscal year 2017 generally followed relevant law, policy, rules, and regulations.” Trips aboard Air Force One and Air Force Two, which the department has to pay for, were in line with common practices at Interior. In addition, a controversial chartered flight in the Virgin Islands in March was properly reviewed.
The investigation of Zinke’s chartered and military flights followed an earlier determination in November that management of Zinke’s travel was “deficient” and lacked oversight. Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said then that her investigation of allegations of improper travel practices by Zinke was stymied by “absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips.”
In the later report, Kendall’s investigators lacked information that would have helped determine whether the secretary’s speech in Las Vegas merited approval by Interior.
“We determined that ethics officials could not adequately review the purpose of the Golden Knights event before approving the speaking engagement because … staff who helped schedule Zinke’s travel did not provide enough information for the ethics officials to render an educated opinion,” the report said.
When interviewed by investigators, Zinke appeared to contradict his press secretary’s comment that the speech was for a “key audience of people we are trying to target to use our public lands.” He said the 44 developmental hockey players between the ages of 18 and 23 he addressed were “leaders in the community,” the report said. Asked what the speech was for, he said: “It’s a motivational speech. Because I have a background as a [Navy] SEAL.”
The schedulers for the trip told investigators that they turned to a charter flight because “no commercial flights were available to accommodate Zinke’s schedule,” since the last commercial flight departed before he was scheduled to speak. The schedulers did not ask the hockey club whether Zinke could have spoken on another date, but the investigators did.
“When asked if the schedule had been flexible enough to allow Zinke to speak later in the week, [an employee] acknowledged that it had been; if June 26 had not worked for Zinke, they would have shifted things around.”
The report also covered four flights Zinke took on Air Force One at the invitation of the White House. The secretary flew to a National Rifle Association convention in Atlanta, where he spoke in April 2017, as a guest of President Trump. In June he attended a presidential media event in Cincinnati. The following month, he traveled with the president to Glen Jean, W.Va., for a Boy Scout Jamboree and finally to Youngstown, Ohio. The $105,000 cost was billed to Interior, according to custom, the report said.
Twice Zinke was invited on Air Force One and Air Force Two flights to Billings, Mont., and Bismark, N.D., only to have the invitations revoked. Interior was still billed $52,000, again according to custom, the report said.