Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, far right. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior
National | Politics

Secretary Zinke flew home to Montana on charter flight that cost over $12K





Controversy over the Trump administration's travel practices is growing.

Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior is the latest to be drawn into media coverage of the scandal. According to news reports, he flew to his home in Montana on a private plane in late June, a trip that cost $12,375.

The plane carried Zinke and Interior staffers, according to the reports, so the cost doesn't account for the Secretary alone. A spokesperson for the department told POLITICO and The Washington Post that the travel was approved because there were no other suitable commercial flights available.

But POLITICO explained the unusual circumstances of the trip. Zinke took the private flight home after giving a "motivational speech" to a hockey team in Nevada owned by a businessman who donated $199,523 to his congressional campaigns, according to the report. While in Nevada, he also spoke to a conservative legal group funded by the Koch brothers, who are prominent Republican donors.

The two events appear to have little to do with Interior's mission of managing public lands and fulfilling the government's obligations in Indian Country. Only one event on his Nevada schedule appears to be related -- he met with state and local officials to discuss Payments in Lieu of Taxes, one of the department's key programs.

But Zinke spent less than 90 minutes on that issue, according to a timeline compiled by the Center for Western Priorities. He was otherwise in Nevada nearly two full days.

“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, the organization's media director, said in the blog post.

The reports came as Secretary Tom Price of the Department of Health and Human Services expressed "regret" for his widely-reported and expensive habit of traveling on private planes. Since May, his flights have cost taxpayers more than $400,000, a figure first uncovered by POLITICO.

"All of my political career I’ve fought for the taxpayers," Price, who is a physician and former Congressman from Georgia, said in a statement. "It is clear to me that in this case, I was not sensitive enough to my concern for the taxpayer. I know as well as anyone that the American people want to know that their hard-earned dollars are being spent wisely by government officials."

Price said he would reimburse the federal government for the costs of "expenses of my travel on private charter planes." He added: "The taxpayers won’t pay a dime for my seat on those planes."

The check would appear to cover the cost of a private plane that took Price to a series of tribal meetings in Oklahoma last week. According to POLITICO, his aides even explored the use of a private plane to take him between the Pawnee Nation and the Cherokee Nation even though it only takes 2 hours by car to make the journey.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform asked the Trump administration on Wednesday for records of travel by "any senior official" on private, as well as government, planes, since January 20.

“Under 5 U.S.C. § 5733, official travel on the part of federal employees must be ‘by the most expeditious means of transportation practicable’ and ‘commensurate with the nature and purpose of the [employee’s] duties,’ and by no means should include personal use,“ a letter signed by the Republican chairman and Democratic ranking member of the committee reads.

Read More on the Story:
Interior Secretary Zinke traveled on charter, military planes (POLITICO September 28, 2017)
Zinke took $12,000 charter flight home in oil executive’s plane, documents show (The Washington Post September 28, 2017)
Price says he’ll repay taxpayers for his private jet travel (POLITICO September 28, 2017)
Price took military jets to Europe, Asia for over $500K (POLITICO September 28, 2017)
Tom Price apologizes for private-charter flights, pledges to repay taxpayers nearly $52,000 (The Washington Post September 28, 2017)
Chastened, Tom Price Tries to Deflect Anger Over Chartered Flights (The New York Times September 28, 2017)

Related Stories:
Trump upset with Secretary of Health and Human Services over private flights (September 28, 2017)
Secretary of Health and Human Services took private plane to tribal meetings (September 25, 2017)
Secretary of Health and Human Services continues outreach in Indian Country (September 19, 2017)