Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary Ryan Zinke responded on Sunday to some Democrats’ charges that he has mixed official business and politics while traveling since taking his post in March.
“Unmitigated, 100 percent BS,” Ryan Zinke told Breitbart News in an interview in Florida where Zinke was surveying damage to three national parks in Florida caused by Hurricane Irma.
Zinke cited a recent report in the Washington Post that reported on a trip he took to the Virgin Islands, which he said made it look like he was vacationing rather than doing his job.
“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.
Zinke was there to meet with Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen and Governor Kenneth Mapp to mark the centennial of the transfer of the islands from Danish to U.S. jurisdiction in 1917.
“And quite frankly, our territories, which fall under Interior, they need to know we have their back,” said Zinke, a retired Navy Seal Commander and former U.S. Congressman.
In fact, President Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, has said that Zinke is within his rights to attend a political event on the sidelines of official business.
Reps. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and A. Donald McEachin (D-VA) requested late last month that the DOI’s Office of Inspector General look into Zinke’s travel record, including a flight from Las Vegas to Montana in June.
“Claims that the Secretary’s full schedule required the use of chartered aircraft deserve scrutiny,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall. “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.”
Their request 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.
These Democrats, however, did not request a travel investigation of 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.
Politico reported that Jewell said she appeared at a fundraiser for Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell while in Obama’s Cabinet.
“If he had legitimate business while he’s on the island, to do a political thing on the side, I don’t think that is that unusual,” Jewell said in an interview.
Heather Swift, spokeswoman for Zinke, told Breitbart news for an earlier report that all of the secretary’s travel has been approved before it takes place.
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.
Zinke told Breitbart News that it is important that he is out in the field getting a firsthand look at the projects under his agency’s jurisdiction.
“As a former Navy commander, it is always better to go out on the front line and talk to real people because the view from Washington is so much different than the view from the field,” Zinke said.
Margaret L. Goodro, supervisor of Biscayne National Park, agrees.
“We appreciate Secretary Zinke’s hands-on involvement and leadership in Hurricane Irma recovery efforts and his deep concern for the park, employees and their families, and the communities of South Florida,” Goodro said.
Zinke met with maintenance staff where he drove a tractor and helped dump gravel to restore a popular picnic area.
As for the issue of using private air transportation rather than commercial airlines, DOI said it is “standard operating procedure” for the secretary and staff to fly commercial, government, or coach fare whenever possible.