Interior watchdog: Concert park gave Zinke $43,000 in annual tickets

Interior watchdog: Concert park gave Zinke $43,000 in annual tickets

A well-known concert venue in the Washington, D.C., metro area receiving federal funding gifted free tickets worth tens of thousands to 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, according to a report by a government watchdog released Thursday.

The Interior's Inspector General highlighted financial, ethical and exclusive use concerns in its report about the decades-long National Park Service (NPS) partnership with the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts based in Vienna, Va.

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The concert venue has been receiving millions in funding from the Interior Department despite it being financially self-sufficient, the report found. The watchdog additionally flagged that the park fails to contribute to NPS deferred maintenance — which is currently facing a $12 million backlog.

Additionally, the report found that Wolf Trap has exclusive use of the national park land on which it operates and uses revenue generated from cellular towers on the Park to finance its operations. 

The 50-year-old foundation, which generated $40 million in revenue in 2016, continues to receive federal financial support, despite an agreement with Interior that support would be phased out once it was financially sufficient.

The Inspector General's Office also found that Wolf Trap's executive director is the highest paid of the 28 philanthropic partners visited by the Inspector General's Office. The director makes $580,300 per year.

The report additionally raised ethics concerns over the venue's policy of giving eight tickets per show to Zinke. The report valued the gifted tickets to be worth $543 per show and $43,000 annually. The report found that the history of gifted tickets went back decades.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift, on Thursday, defended Zinke's free tickets from Wolf Trap, tweeting that as a national park the office of the secretary has received tickets for "several several decades." 

Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a spokeswoman for NPS, also tweeted Thursday that the practice of receiving tickets was not solely related to the current Interior secretary.

"Secretaries of the Interior have received complimentary tickets for each performance since the earliest days of Wolf Trap. The National Park Service is consulting with a Department of the Interior ethics officer to review this long-standing practice," she said in her tweet.

She added that NPS is consulting with a Department of the Interior ethics officer to review the practice.

Swift did not respond to questions about whether the long-standing practice was unethical.

The official Wolf Trap Twitter account liked both officials' tweets.

The Wolf Trap National Park was established in 1966 and is the only national park that exists for the sole purpose of performing arts.

In the 1970s, the NPS agreed to pay for the foundation's stagehands and other theater technicians. In fiscal 2016, the NPS provided $4.2 million for the park and $594,000 for those positions, but proposed eliminating funding for those positions in its fiscal 2018 budget.

"Our findings demonstrate that the Foundation, unlike other NPS partners we visited,
benefits from its arrangement with the Park," said the inspector general report. 

The contract between Wolf Trap and the NPS will be renegotiated in October.

The inspector general report made six recommendations to the NPS over the partnership, including obtaining an ethics review of the appropriateness of receiving the free tickets. Interior agreed to four recommendations but has not implemented them yet, according to the report.