Inspector general: Zinke used taxpayer-funded travel for his wife

Inspector general: Zinke used taxpayer-funded travel for his wife
© Greg Nash

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: House Dems at odds over how to handle climate change | Trump shows support to California over wildfires | Zinke calls fires worse than Iraq war zones Zinke: California wildfire destruction 'worse than any war zone I saw in Iraq' Trump offers support to California governor amid feud over wildfires MORE violated department travel policies by bringing his family members in government-owned vehicles, the agency’s internal watchdog concluded on Thursday.

The Interior Department’s inspector general (OIG) found in a new report that Zinke and his wife Lolita brought a Park Police security detail on a vacation, costing more than $25,000, though there was no policy prohibiting it.

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Despite a policy stating that people not engaged in government business cannot ride in Interior vehicles, “we found that Secretary Zinke’s wife and other family members had occasionally ridden with him in government vehicles,” OIG investigators said in a their report late Thursday.

The report said that despite the prohibition, the Interior solicitor’s office approved Zinke’s family’s travel “on a case-by-case basis.”

OIG investigators also found that Zinke had asked Interior employees to designate Lolita Zinke as a volunteer for the agency, which would allow her to travel in official vehicles without approval or reimbursement.

Zinke decided against the appointment due to the “optics,” but denied that it was to get around travel rules, OIG said.

The OIG report came the same day that Interior denied that the Trump administration planned to install a political appointee from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to oversee the inspector general’s office. HUD Secretary Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonDetroit school board considers dropping Ben Carson’s name from local high school Number of homeless vets declined in last year Overnight Energy: Chief energy regulator vows to steer clear of political fights | Zinke was referred to DOJ shortly before watchdog controversy | Groups threaten to sue EPA over paint stripper MORE had previously said that the appointee, Suzanne Israel Tufts, would be the new acting inspector general at Interior, which would effectively demote Mary Kendall, the current highest-ranking employee in the watchdog office.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift framed the Thursday report as an exoneration.

“The Inspector General report proves what we have known all along: the secretary follows all relevant laws and regulations and that all of his travel was reviewed and approved by career ethics officials and solicitors prior to travel,” she said.

“Additionally, the secretary received the same exact legal advice from the solicitors as previous secretaries and he acted consistently. The report even said so.”

After investigators started looking into the issue, Interior changed the travel policy to allow family members on official trips.

In the four official trips that investigators probed, Lolita Zinke and another family member reimbursed Interior for the costs of her travel.

Interior said an unidentified person in the solicitor’s office approved the family travel, despite knowing that internal policies prohibited it.

“She explained that other DOI employees could use personal vehicles for government travel, but because Secretary Zinke had a security detail that used government vehicles, he did not have that option. She said she generally deferred to a secretary’s security detail to decide who should be allowed in the vehicles,” the report said, paraphrasing the solicitor’s office employee.

In addition, Zinke brought a number of non-government travelers on a National Park Service boat for a trip to California’s Channel Islands. Interior designated them as “stakeholders,” meaning they did not have to reimburse the agency for travel.

Two of those travelers had hosted a fundraiser for Zinke’s congressional campaign in 2014, and the family of one used to own property on one of the Channel Islands, investigators said, facts that ethics officials were not aware of prior to the trip.

The report confirmed earlier reporting that Zinke and his wife brought a Park Police security detail on their August 2017 vacation to Turkey and Greece.

“While we found no prohibition against the detail providing protection to Secretary Zinke during the Zinkes’ vacation, we learned that the protection cost the DOI over $25,000,” investigators wrote.

The Center for Western Priorities, which has often clashed with Zinke, called on him to apologize in the wake of the findings.

“This report shows Secretary Zinke’s dogged determination to use his office for personal gain, even going so far as to tell Interior’s top lawyer to lie to the public to justify his wife’s travel,” Jen Rokala, the group’s director, said in a statement.

“Secretary Zinke owes the American people an apology — and a refund.”

Investigators looked into a number of allegations that they did not corroborate, including that Interior broke the costs of Zinke’s “challenge coins” into multiple transactions to avoid scrutiny, that Lolita Zinke got an official government phone, and that a former Interior employee resigned because Zinke made her walk his dog.

--Updated 7:20 p.m.