AUDIT: IG Finds Ryan Zinke ‘Followed Relevant Law’ When Chartering Flights

Michael Bastasch | Contributor

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s use of non-commercial and charter flights “followed relevant law, policy, rules, and regulations,” according to an Office of Inspector General obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

The IG’s office began investigating Zinke’s use of chartered flights in October after former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned for billing taxpayers $400,000 for chartered flights.

Environmentalists were quick to tie Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt into the fray, specifically pointing to one $12,000 charter flight Zinke took from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Mont., in June.

The IG’s office flagged the Las Vegas charter as the only potentially problematic flight. Officials “might have avoided using a chartered flight” had they rescheduled a 12-minute speech with “no nexus to the DOI,” reads the IG report set for public release on Monday.

The IG’s office said Zinke’s speech, which was on leadership, has “no nexus” to Interior’s mission since the secretary focused on lessons learned as a Navy SEAL. DOI career ethics officials approved of Zinke’s speech.

The ethics official who approved Zinke’s speaking to the Golden Knights hockey team told investigators the fact the team’s owner was a campaign donor “alone probably would not have changed her opinion about whether Zinke could speak at the event in an official capacity,” but she would have had a more in-depth conservation with Interior’s Acting Solicitor Daniel Jorjani.

Jorjani, however, told investigators “the speaking engagement to the Golden Knights aligned with the DOI’s priorities.” Likewise, the Interior employee who scheduled Zinke’s trip did not remember “Loftin saying that Zinke’s speech should mention or focus on the DOI,” according to the report.

In his response to the IG’s report, Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt noted a “glaring omission” in the IG’s focus on Zinke’s Las Vegas charter flight. The IG did not mention Zinke’s visit to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, he wrote.

“When the Secretary’s visit to Red Rock Canyon is added to the timeline, it is dubious whether the Secretary would have been able to get to the airport in Las Vegas in time to catch the last commercial flight” to get to Montana for the Western Governors’ Association annual meeting, Bernhardt wrote.

Even if Zinke cancelled his speech, he would not likely have made the last commercial flight, Bernhardt noted. Zinke’s chief of staff approved the charter flight out of Las Vegas, but only after career ethics officials signed off first.

Zinke was also pressed to catch a charter flight because of his early speaking slot at the Western Governors’ Association conference. DOI staffers tried, but were unable to get a different speaking slot for Zinke.

“A later speaking time would have obviate the need for a charter flight,” Bernhardt wrote.

Democrats and environmentalists will likely use the IG’s report to continue their attacks on Zinke, trying to link him to concerns about high travel costs racked up by EPA’s Pruitt. Environmentalists have been trying to tie Zinke to the scandal that took out Price.

However, Zinke’s travel costs for 2017 were less than what past Interior secretaries had billed in a given year, according to documents unearthed by TheDCNF.

Obama administration Interior secretaries racked up $971,643 chartering non-commercial flights over a six-year period, internal documents revealed. Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar spent $586,196 on non-commercial flights over three years and former Secretary Sally Jewell charged taxpayers $385,438 for non-commercial flights.

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