WASHINGTON (AP) — A $12,000 charter flight by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was reviewed and approved by department ethics officials without complete information, because staff who helped schedule the trip did not provide sufficient details, an internal watchdog said Monday.
A report by Interior’s inspector general said Zinke’s use of a chartered flight after he spoke to a National Hockey League team in Las Vegas “might have been avoided” if Interior employees had worked with the team to accommodate Zinke’s schedule.
The report, issued Monday, said Zinke never mentioned the Interior Department or his role as secretary in the June 2017 speech to the Las Vegas Golden Knights, instead focusing on his experience as a former Navy SEAL. An ethics official said the speech should have been tied to the department’s mission to qualify as an official event.
The ethics official, Melinda Loftin, told investigators she did not know that the team’s owner had donated to Zinke’s congressional campaign until it was reported in a newspaper article after the speech.
The campaign contribution by itself “probably would not have changed her opinion about whether Zinke could speak at the event in an official capacity,” the report said. But if Loftin had known the team owner had been a campaign donor “she might have discussed the optics of Zinke’s involvement” with the department’s lawyers, the report said.
Two other charter flights taken by Zinke, in Alaska and the U.S. Virgin Islands, “appeared to have been reasonable as related to official DOI business,” the report said.
Zinke’s spokeswoman, Heather Swift, said the report “said exactly what was known all along: The use of chartered aircraft ‘followed relevant law, policy, rules, and regulations’ and appeared reasonable for official DOI business.”
The report also shows that in every instance reviewed, Zinke’s staff consulted with and sought prior approval from career ethics officials and travel lawyers, “and that we follow their expert advice,” Swift said.
Ethics officials “were given all the information they asked for,” Swift added. “Had they asked for more it would have been provided.”
Zinke has defended his use of private charter flights for government business, calling criticism of his taxpayer-financed travel “complete and utter bull” and driven by politics.