Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and A. Donald McEachin (D-VA) have requested that the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General look into Secretary Ryan Zinke’s travel since taking his post at the agency.
This comes on the heels of the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price after revelations that he took chartered jets for personal and business trips during his tenure, with a price tag of about $400,000.
But the Democrats’ attempt to discredit Zinke seems a purely political move as the request to investigate is based on speculation about the nature of his trips and is broad in scope, according to an OIG official who spoke to the Washington Post.
Nancy K. DiPaolo, a spokesperson for Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall, described a broad investigation into Zinke’s travel in general, including modes of travel, costs, and schedules.
“It’s not just one trip,” DiPaolo said. “It’s seven months of travel.”
And Zinke’s spokeperson, Heather Swift, told Breitbart News that, in fact, all of Zinke’s travel has been approved.
“The Interior Department under the Trump Administration has always and will always work to ensure all officials follow appropriate rules and regulations when traveling, including seeking commercial options at all times appropriate and feasible, to ensure the efficient use of government resources,” Swift said.
Swift said the Scheduling Office meets regularly with the Departmental Ethics Office and the Division of General Law to ensure that all travel is thoroughly reviewed and approved in advance and that it is fully compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.
The Democrats asked for an investigation of Zinke’s travel because they said they believed his attending political events kept him from getting cheaper flights.
“Claims that the Secretary’s full schedule required the use of chartered aircraft deserve scrutiny,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Kendall last week about a trip Zinke took in June. “It appears as though Secretary Zinke and his staff could have taken a commercial flight from Las Vegas to Montana if he did not attend the motivational speech to the hockey team owned by his friend and campaign contributor.”
Swift told the Post that no commercial flights were available that matched Zinke’s itinerary, but the news outlet portrayed the trip as including a political favor.
The Post reported that the June trip cost $12,375.
The Post also portrayed a trip Zinke took in March to the U.S. territory of the Virgin Islands as a Caribbean getaway rather than an official visit to an island under DOI’s jurisdiction.
“The secretary and his official entourage also boarded private flights between the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix during a three-day trip to the Virgin Islands in March, his first month on the job,” the Post reported.
The Post reported on remarks Zinke made while speaking about American energy independence at the Heritage Foundation last week when he said the government should be accountable to taxpayers.
“I believe taxpayers absolutely have a right to know about official travel costs,” Zinke said, and listed three occasions when he used charter planes to fly to Alaska for a bipartisan trip arranged by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), the flight to Montana, and trips between the Virgin Islands.
Zinke also said that he has flown U.S. military jets at least twice, once at the invitation of Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue and again at the invitation of President Trump.
“Using taxpayer funds wisely is good government,” Zinke said, but “there are times when we have to use [charter flights] as an option.”
In fact, the same Democrats who are seeking an investigation into Zinke did not do the same during the tenure of President Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, who took several in-state private jet trips in New Mexico and Montana in 2016, which totaled more than $23,000, and another involving travel from California to Montana that totaled more than $12,000.
Jewell also was aboard military aircraft in 2013 and 2014.
DOI said it is “standard operating procedure” that the secretary and staff fly on a commercial, government, coach fare whenever possible.