"Touched down in the US Virgin Islands for the 100 year anniversary ceremony. Heading out to honor veterans first," Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke wrote in a post on Twitter on March 30, 2017. He flew a commercial airline to the U.S. territory. Photo: Secretary Zinke
National | Politics

Secretary Zinke derides questions about travel as 'bull' while GOP provides cover

Secretary Ryan Zinke of the Department of the Interior continues to defend his use of private and government planes as Republicans attempt to deflect criticism of the Trump administration.

Speaking to reporters in Georgia on Wednesday, Zinke derided questions about his travel as “complete and utter bull----,” according to The Associated Press. He said all of his trips have been cleared by the department, even those in which he appeared to mix personal affairs and political business with his official duties as the steward of America's public lands and a trustee to Indian Country.

Zinke added that his his predecessors spent "millions" on travel, though he didn't offer specifics, the AP reported. “I wish you’d publish that,” he was quoted as saying.

Republican allies in Congress are hoping to help Zinke with that quest. They are asking him to provide documentation not only about his "non-commercial" travel but that of his two Democratic predecessors.

“When partisan opportunists conflate diligent conformance to scandal, no one wins. Let’s get all facts on the table, ensure taxpayers are protected and proceed with the peoples’ business," Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said in a statement.

A letter Bishop authored with another Republican accused Democratic colleagues of "selectively" ignoring the Trump administration's explanation for Zinke's travel with their request for an investigation from the Office of Inspector General at Interior. The office has already said it is looking into the trips.

News accounts have focused on two in particular. One was to the Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory. In addition to an official, public event, Zinke appeared at a Republican fundraiser there in March, when donors paid up to $5,000 a couple of photos with the Secretary, POLITICO reported.

Though he flew commercial to the territory, he and his staff took private planes for trips between two islands, POLITICO reported. The costs have not been disclosed.

A second trip took place in Nevada in late June. Though he is not an attorney and wasn't actively involved in legal issues during his first and only term in Congress, Zinke spoke to a conservative legal group funded by the Koch brothers, who are prominent Republican donors.

Zinke also delivered a "motivational speech" to the Vegas Golden Knights during the hockey team's development camp. Neither event appears to be directly connected to Interior's mission but the department has said his trip there was cleared by legal and ethical officials.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is now looking into the speech, according to the AP and Reuters. The team is owned by a businessman who donated $199,523 to Zinke's congressional campaigns

A timeline compiled by the Center for Western Priorities shows Zinke was in Nevada three days. One event, a meeting with local and state officials regarding a key program at Interior, appeared to last less than 90 minutes.

Zinke and his staff took a private plane to Montana after the hockey speech in order him to make it to a meeting of the Western Governors' Association on the following day. The department has told news organizations that no suitable commercial fights were available.

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 his speech to the governors.

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.

Read More on the Story:
Interior chief dismisses criticism of travel with vulgarity (The Associated Press October 4, 2017)
Trump's Interior chief 'hopping around from campaign event to campaign event' (POLITICO October 5, 2017)

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