Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, on June 27, 2017. "Back in my old middle school gym for an interview with @_AngelaMarshall for some #hometown press. #GoDawgs," Zinke wrote on Twitter. Photo: Secretary Zinke

Secretary Zinke under investigation over 'motivational speech' to hockey team

Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior is facing a second investigation connected to his trip on a private plane that cost taxpayers more than $12,000.

According to Reuters and The Associated Press, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is investigating Zinke's "motivational speech" to the Vegas Golden Knights in Nevada. The team happens to be owned by a businessman who donated $199,523 to Zinke's congressional campaigns, POLITICO previously reported.

"Rather than putting America first, Zinke is putting a top donor first," Daniel Stevens, the executive director of Campaign for Accountability, said in a press release. The group's complaint prompted the official inquiry, according to the news reports.

While in Nevada, Zinke also spoke to a conservative legal group funded by the Koch brothers, who are prominent Republican donors. Neither event appears to be connected to Interior's mission of managing public lands and fulfilling the government's obligations in Indian Country, but the department is defending his trip there anyway.

“The trip - including the Secretary’s address to the hockey developmental squad - was completely compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations,” two officials at the department said in a statement quoted by Reuters.

Zinke's speech to the Vegas Golden Knights took place during the hockey team's development camp. It occurred on the final day of the Secretary's three-day visit to Nevada in June.

The timing of the evening speech required Zinke and his staff to take a private plane in order for him to make it to Montana on time for a meeting of the Western Governors' Association on the following day, the department has told news organizations.

A timeline compiled by the Center for Western Priorities shows the Zinke team could have caught the last commercial flight to Montana if the hockey speech hadn't been on his agenda. The Secretary apparently spent more time with the team and its owner (2 hours) than on a meeting with local and state officials (less than 90 minutes) earlier in the day.

The trip on the private plane cost taxpayers $12,375, according to news reports. It enabled Zinke to spend the night at his home in Whitefish, Montana, before the speech to the governors.

"At #WGA2017 in my hometown of Whitefish #Montana. I think I'm the only one here who played trombone on this stage," Zinke wrote on Twitter on June 27.

Secretary Ryan Zinke addresses a meeting of Western Governors' Association in Whitefish, Montana, on June 27, 2017, the day after his speech to the Vegas Golden Knights. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

The White House Office of Management and Budget has since ordered Cabinet heads to to seek "prior approval" before traveling on "government-owned, rented, leased, or chartered aircraft." The September 28 memo directive came on the same day Tom Price resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Price and his staff spent more than $1 million on private planes, according to news reports. His expensive habit angered President Donald Trump.

Prior to his resignation, Price said he would pay for the cost of his seats on the private planes he used. The reimbursement comes to $51,887.31, according to CNN, or just a fraction of the total cost of the trips.

Zinke doesn't plan on reimbursing the government for his trips, The Associated Press reported. The Secretary of the Interior typically travels to remote areas of Indian Country and hard to reach public lands, often requiring the use of government and charter planes.

None of Zinke's predecessors appear to have been the subject of similar internal inquiries. Still, the Office of Inspector General at Interior is investigating his travel in light of complaints, mainly from Democrats in Congress.

Read More on the Story:
U.S. Interior Secretary investigated over speech to donor's hockey team (Reuters October 3, 2017)
Interior, EPA chiefs: No plans to pay back charter flights (The Associated Press October 3, 2017)

Also Today:
What’s driving an Interior whistleblower to dissent? (High Country News October 3, 2017)

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