Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke chartered a jet co-owned by a company that also did business with the agency during the Obama era, according to a Friday report from E&E News.
Zinke took a four-hour flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Mont., aboard a private plane owned by Jay Nielson, the executive vice president of oil and gas exploration company Nielson & Associates, the report notes. His flight cost $12,375, an Interior Department spokeswoman told reporters.
Nielson, who co-owns the plane, told reporters that he was not in control of the jet at time Interior chartered it through a holding company called Choice Aviation. Nielson told WaPo that he was unsure whether Zinke flew on the plane.
Choice Aviation’s relationship with the Interior Department predates Zinke, and began when Sally Jewell was secretary of the agency during the Obama administration. The company’s equipment has been available to Interior officials since September 2014, when the firm was awarded a contract worth $21,819. That contract ended Jan. 4, 2017, according to government records.
A representative, who declined to give reporters her name, said she was unsure whether Choice chartered the flight.
Zinke took the flight in early June after speaking to the Vegas Golden Knights, a new National Hockey League team based in Las Vegas. He was in Las Vegas that day after flying on a commercial flight from Reno, Nev. to speak the night before at a nearby dinner in Lake Tahoe held by conservative legal group Rule of Law Defense Fund.
Ethics officials approved Zinke’s chartered flights, which were booked only when feasible commercial flights were unavailable, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift told reporters, adding that previous interior secretaries also flew charter flights when needed.
Environmentalists blasted Zinke for his use of the flights.
“Secretary Zinke’s entire Nevada trip appears to be a flimsy excuse for a political event in Tahoe and a thank-you dinner with his biggest campaign bundler,” Aaron Weiss of the Center for Western Priorities told reporters. He was referring to Zinke’s talk to the Golden Knights, whose owner, Bill Foley, donated a total of $199,523 to Zinke’s two congressional campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The agency’s ethics department cleared the speech beforehand, Swift said.
“As a former military officer and current government leader, the Secretary was asked to give a speech about leadership and the importance of teamwork,” Swift told reporters. “The Department’s career ethics officials determined this was well within the Department’s mission and it also was a key audience of people we are trying to target to use our public lands.”
Other members of Trump’s administration have been criticized for similar actions.
EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, for instance, took four non-commercial and military flights to conduct official business for the agency. Agency officials confirmed Thursday that he flew from Cincinnati to New York’s JFK airport to June 7 on an Air Force jet after attending an event with President Donald Trump. Pruitt then boarded a commercial flight to Italy for an international summit.
His trips cost taxpayers a total of $58,000.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, likewise, reportedly took five chartered jets over the course of a week earlier this month, spending roughly $400,000 on private planes since May.
Price took several privately chartered flights in September to participate in meetings and discussions with health care companies and executives, Politico reported Sept. 20, which cited airport records and internal Department of Health and Human Services documents.
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