Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s use of private planes at taxpayers’ expense — a controversy he’s shrugged off as “a little BS” — is being investigated by the Interior Department’s watchdog group, Politico reported Monday.
Interior’s Office of the Inspector General launched a probe late last week after receiving “numerous complaints,” office spokeswoman Nancy K. DiPaolo told Politico.
Last week, it was revealed that Zinke and several staffers had chartered an oil company plane for a flight from Las Vegas to Montana in June, costing taxpayers $12,375. The Washington Post reported that the flight followed a “motivational speech” Zinke gave to the Vegas Golden Knights, the city’s new National Hockey League team. The team is owned by Bill Foley, chairman of Fidelity National Financial. Employees and political action committees affiliated with the company reportedly donated nearly $200,000 to Zinke’s two congressional campaigns.
The Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit government watchdog group, was among the groups that requested OIG look into whether Zinke violated the Hatch Act and conflict-of-interest laws.
“Interior argues that by speaking to a group of highly paid — mostly foreign — athletes, Sec. Zinke was reaching ‘a key audience of people we are trying to target to use our public lands,’” Daniel Stevens, the nonprofit’s executive director, said in a statement Friday. “Shouldn’t Sec. Zinke be more focused on American families and how they can benefit from our national lands? Rather than putting America first, Zinke is putting a top donor first.”
During an energy speech Friday at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Zinke acknowledged using a private plane on three separate occasions, including the trip from Las Vegas to Montana, as well as flights to the Arctic Circle and to the U.S. Virgin Islands. All of those flights, he said, occurred “only after it was determined by multiple career professionals at the department that no commercial options existed to meet the promulgated schedule.” He characterized the media and public’s response as “a little BS.”
“Using tax dollars wisely and ethically is a greatest responsibility and is at the heart of good government,” Zinke said Friday. “And there are times, however, we have to utilize charter services because we often travel in areas and under circumstances that we don’t have other fight options.”
Zinke added he would “always be honest and upfront about my travel,” but plans to continue flying chartered flights and on military planes when necessary or when invited on official duty.
Neither DiPaolo nor the Interior Department immediately responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Tom Price resigned Friday as President Donald Trump’s secretary of health and human services amid investigations into his frequent use of such flights, which have costs taxpayers over $900,000, according to a series of reports by Politico.