- A leaked ethics investigation shows that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke received approval from ethics officials to bring his wife Lolita with him on official travel.
- Media outlets have spun the report to “fault” Zinke for “skirting” department policies and allowing his wife to travel in government vehicles at the expense of taxpayers.
- The media reports are misleading and don’t take into account Zinke, as the head of Interior, has complete authority over department policies not mandated by law, and he can change them at will.
A leaked ethics report on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s travel with his wife has been spun in the media as an indictment of Zinke’s judgement and ethics, but the actual report says no such thing.
The Inspector General (IG) report, set to be released next week, reveals that ethics officials cleared Zinke to take his wife with him on trips in official government vehicles as long as space was available and no additional costs were incurred. In instances where Lolita Zinke’s presence cost taxpayers, the Zinkes reimbursed the government, according to the IG report obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Politico posted an article on the leaked Inspector General report Thursday evening under the headline “Interior Dept. probe faults Zinke for travels with wife.” CNN reported on the IG report under the headline “Internal watchdog report: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke broke agency policy with wife’s travel.”
“Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke sought to skirt or alter department policies to justify his taxpayer-funded trips with his wife, the agency’s inspector general said in the latest critical report on travel practices by President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members,” Politico’s article begins. (RELATED: Zinke Scrutinized For Taking A Security Detail To Countries Bombed By Terrorists)
While department policy generally prohibits non-government employees from riding in official vehicles, Zinke’s case is different for a couple reasons. As the Interior secretary, Zinke must travel in an official government vehicle. That caveat led ethics officials to approve Zinke’s request to take his wife with him on official trips if space was available.
Zinke is not technically bound by department policies because he can change them “with the stroke of a pen,” deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and deputy Solicitor Edward Keable told investigators.
Zinke updated the department’s policies in July after recognizing that his travel with his wife was “inconsistent with the department’s general motor vehicle policy,” according to a letter obtained by TheDCNF that Bernhardt sent to deputy IG Mary Kendall on Thursday in response to the report.
Zinke asked Interior employees to look into the legal and ethical implications of making Lolita an official volunteer for the agency, according to the report.
The Zinkes wanted her to serve as a department “ombudsman” – a liaison between DOI employees and their families. The volunteer position is primarily a military position between families and a commanding officer. Lolita Zinke was an ombudsman when her husband served in the Navy, and the secretary has adapted other military traditions to the Department of the Interior.
“Ultimately, the employees advised [Secretary Zinke] that making [his wife] a volunteer could be perceived negatively, and she did not become one,” the report states.
The report quotes Alternate Designated Agency Ethics Official Ed McDonnell, while Interior staff researched the possibility of making Lolita a volunteer, as saying, “We’re spending taxpayer dollars trying to figure out if [Lolita Zinke] can be a volunteer so that [Ryan Zinke] doesn’t have to pay [reimbursement for her riding in government vehicles].”
An Interior official said Zinke “was upset” Lolita sometimes had to cover her own expenses when traveling with the secretary. Zinke denied that making her a volunteer was about the travel costs, according to the report.
The most significant lapse in Zinke’s judgement outlined in the report happened when he told his security detail to drive a representative from a DOI-affiliated group to Reagan National Airport after dinner, though his security is not allowed to transport people without him present.
“Secretary Zinke acknowledged that he told his detail to take the non-government employee to Reagan National Airport,” the report says. “He said he had asked this as a matter of convenience, but he was later told not to make such requests and he has not done so since.”
Environmentalists have began using the leaked report to call for Zinke’s ouster from the administration. (RELATED: Green Groups Already Looking For Their Next Scalp — Ryan Zinke)
“Being exposed for abusing his power to rip off the taxpayer while benefiting himself provides all the proof that should be needed to fire Ryan Zinke,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement, according to Politico. “At the same time, Zinke appears to be partaking in a cover-up of his actions while pointing the finger at anyone but himself.”
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