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In speech to conservative think tank, Zinke misleads on travel expenses

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In his first major policy address since his confirmation in March, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke began his speech to a friendly crowd at the conservative Heritage Foundation by addressing an emerging scandal head on. But it wasn’t Zinke’s penchant for meeting with fossil fuel executives over local conservation groups that he spoke about, or his reported reassignment of career staff over their work on climate change: Instead, Zinke led with airplane travel.

“Before we get started, I’d just like to address, in the words of General Schwarzkopf, a little ‘b.s.’ on travel,” Zinke said, alluding to news that broke Thursday night that the Secretary of the Interior had taken a private chartered jet from Las Vegas to Montana in June, costing taxpayers more than $12,000.

That makes Zinke the fourth Trump administration cabinet member to come under fire for their use of private travel at taxpayer expense. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have all recently made headlines for their use of taxpayer-funded private travel — in some cases, costing nearly $1 million.

“Using tax dollars wisely and ethically a great responsibility and is at the heart of good government,” Zinke continued. “There are times, however, we have to utilize charter services because we often travel in areas and under circumstances that we don’t have other flight options.”

Zinke went on to explain that he had used charter travel a total of three times since being sworn in: once to visit the Arctic circle as part of a bipartisan excursion lead by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, once to fly late at night to Montana for a meeting with the governor and to speak at the Western Governor’s Association, and once to travel to and between the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Zinke also claimed that chartered flights were only used when “no commercial flights existed to meet the promulgated schedule,” though he failed to mention that in the instance of at least one of the flights in question, the scheduled event was a speech to a hockey team owned by one of Zinke’s wealthiest campaign donors.

It is the second chartered flight, from Las Vegas to Montana in June, that has raised questions from the media and conservation groups. Zinke was in the Las Vegas area to give a speech at the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a conservative group meant to help Republican attorneys general that is funded, at least in part, by the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers. Zinke then traveled to Las Vegas to give a “motivational speech” to the Vegas Golden Knights, Las Vegas’ new National Hockey League team. The team is owned by Bill Foley, a billionaire businessman and chairman of Fidelity National Financial Inc., Zinke’s largest campaign donor.

There was at least one commercial flight that left Las Vegas late enough to get Zinke to Montana in time for his speech at the Western Governor’s Association the next day, had he chosen to forgo in speech to the NHL team, which according to Zinke’s schedule, ran until 7:30 pm (the last commercial flight connecting Las Vegas to Montana left at 6:50 pm).

The Department of the Interior dismissed the idea that Zinke could have forgone his speech to the NHL team in order to save money on a commercial flight in a statement to E&E News.

“Suggesting that by cancelling meetings and events the secretary could make a different flight is not a valid argument,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said. “That point could be made for every person who ever books flights. It’s important for the secretary to be in the field talking with the American people and meeting with local and state officials, which was exactly what he was doing on both legs of that trip.”

But Aaron Weiss, media director for the Center for Western Priorities, said that Zinke’s excuses didn’t make up for the thousands in taxpayer dollars that he spent to attend a largely political event.

“Secretary Zinke tried clumsily to dance around the reason his Nevada trip was inappropriate. At the end of the day, spending $12,000 in taxpayer money on a private plane because you want to go to a dinner party with your biggest donor is an abuse of the public trust,” Weiss told ThinkProgress. “The secretary should own up to his mistakes, repay taxpayers for the private planes, and keep political events off his schedule for the rest of his time at Interior.”

Weiss also noted that Zinke’s history of bad judgement with travel home extends beyond his time as Interior — when he was a Navy SEAL, he was forced to repay $211 for one of two trips to Montana that he had “improperly billed” to the government.

“We saw the same sort of excuses when the secretary tried to downplay his inappropriate travel back home to Montana when he was a SEAL,” Weiss said. “That lapse in judgment cost him a chance at command, and it seems he still hasn’t learned.”

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