Watchdog: Zinke could have avoided charter flight after meeting with Las Vegas hockey team

Watchdog: Zinke could have avoided charter flight after meeting with Las Vegas hockey team
© Greg Nash

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeTrump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Big-game hunters infuriated by Trump elephant trophy debacle Interior moves ahead with opening wildlife refuge next to contaminated nuclear site MORE could have avoided a chartered flight between a meeting with a professional hockey team in Las Vegas and another meeting in Montana, the department's internal watchdog said Monday.

In its report, the Interior's Office of the Inspector General (IG) found that Zinke's chief of staff Scott Hommel was responsible for authorizing the trip to meet with the Golden Knights, an NHL team in Las Vegas, but found that the trip was not properly vetted by the Interior ethics officials who signed off on his use of a $12,375 chartered flight.

The reason for the improper vetting, the report found, was in part due to the fact that officials were not provided with enough information from Interior staff, including the fact that the event was not tied to the Department of Interior (DOI) and that the owner of the Golden Knights helped bankroll Zinke's run for Congress in Montana.

"If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight. Moreover, had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion," the IG office found.

The team is owned by Bill Foley, a billionaire businessman and board chairman of Fidelity National Financial Inc., who heavily donated to Zinke's first congressional campaign in Montana according to Federal Election Commission filings. Foley donated the maximum contribution amount of $2,600 in 2013 and 2018. Chicago Title Services, which is owned by Fidelity, donated $23,900 to Zinke's campaign.

The IG's office confirmed that Zinke flew to Las Vegas specifically to give a "leadership speech" at the team's developmental camp in June. The dinner was part of a weeklong event for recently drafted Golden Knights players. Zinke did not mention his role as Interior secretary or his work at the agency, the report noted.

The report found that Melinda Loftin, DOI’s then-designated agency ethics official, was presented Zinke's itinerary for approval. The IG found during an interview with Loftin that at the time she was under the impression that the speech for the Golden Knights' "development team" was for a youth team.

"She said she most likely had this discussion with a DOI employee who helped schedule the Secretary’s travel," read the report. "After reviewing a video of Zinke’s speech to the Golden Knights, Loftin acknowledged that the speech was not what she had expected Zinke to talk about."

While Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift told the IG office that the recruits were a “key audience” for the DOI, Loftin found after watching the video that Zinke never mentioned the department or his role as secretary in his speech.

“It certainly should have been tied to the Department of the Interior and in some way reflective of our mission,” Loftin said, in order for it to qualify as an official event.

Interior officials signed off on Zinke's use of a chartered plane between the Golden Knights meeting and Whitefish, Mont., because there were no available commercial flights. The chartered plane carried Zinke and four Interior staffers.

However, the IG report found that the use of the charter plane was likely avoidable all together with better planning.

"The use of the chartered flight might have been avoided if the DOI employees who were scheduling Zinke’s trip had worked with the Golden Knights to better accommodate his schedule," the report reads.

The report said Zinke and his staff was "aware" of the trip as early as March 7 — six days after he became secretary and three months prior to the June event.

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Poll: Majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Protests and anger: Washington in turmoil as elections near MORE (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate committee that oversees the Interior Department, said that Zinke should learn from the report.

"Secretary Zinke should heed the Inspector General’s findings that his speech to a political donor’s hockey team had 'no tie' to official business and avoid similarly questionable uses of taxpayer dollars in the future,” Cantwell said. “I hope in the future Interior Department ethics officials won’t sign off on potentially improper or unlawful travel arrangements until they are certain they have all the relevant information."

And Rep. Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweyCongress sends first spending package to Trump in push to avert shutdown The stakes are sky-high for the pro-life cause in the upcoming midterms Dems urge Mattis to reject using 0M for border wall MORE (D-N.Y.) ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee tweeted Monday:

Swift said the new IG report says "exactly what was known all along."

"The report shows that in every instance reviewed, the secretary’s staff consulted with and sought prior approval from the career ethics officials and travel lawyers, and that we follow their expert advice,” she said in a statement. 

The report confirmed that Zinke made three stops in Nevada on the same trip, including one in Pahrump to make a grant announcement. The IG found that the location of the Payments in Lieu of Taxes grants was determined after Zinke had already planned his trip to Nevada.

When asked if the trip to talk to the hockey team was the first event on his schedule, Zinke initially told the IG office no, but then said it might have been.

“But it didn’t drive the schedule,” Zinke told the IG. “The priority was not the hockey team.” 

The IG included the probe of Zinke's hockey team meeting with another investigation into the secretary's various charter flight trips at the request of Democratic Reps. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) and A. Donald McEachinAston (Donale) Donald McEachinVirginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence Trump, Obamas and Clintons among leaders mourning Aretha Franklin Overnight Energy — Presented by Chevron — Watchdog to look into Zinke deal with oil exec | Perry concedes Iran sanctions could raise oil prices | GOP chair pushing ahead with probe into green groups MORE (Va.). 

In October, the Office of Special Counsel also opened a Hatch Act investigation into Zinke's meeting with the hockey team.

Updated at 6:54 p.m.