WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Saturday swung back at recent media reports about his costly use of government helicopters, calling them “total fabrications and a wild departure from reality.”
In a post to Twitter, Zinke offered what he called “facts the DC media refuses to print.” His use of helicopters, he explained in an accompanying statement, included conducting aerial surveys “of a million acres of federal monument lands” and “of a power line project, which was under scrutiny for possible compensatory mitigation corruption from the previous administration.” A third helicopter trip, he said, was for “a national command authority directed emergency response exercise.”
All of the trips — presumably including the round-trip flight the ensured he made it home in time for an afternoon of horseback riding with Vice President Mike Pence, as Politico first reported — were “thoroughly vetted and scrutinized before being approved” by the Interior Department’s ethics officers, he said.
“Since I took the helm at Interior, the Office of the Secretary reduced the annual cost of noncommercial airfare compared to the previous two secretaries and we will continue to use government resources efficiently,” Zinke said in his statement.
Politico reported Thursday that Zinke spent more than $14,000 in taxpayer money to use government helicopters to travel to and from Washington, D.C., this summer. That figure includes a $6,250 round-trip flight to go horseback riding in New York with Vice President Mike Pence. Another flight allowed for him to attend the swearing in ceremony of Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Mont.).
On Friday, the Associated Press reported on a third flight to tour a pair of national monuments in Nevada — part of his controversial review of 27 protected sites — that cost $39,000.
In total the three trips cost taxpayers more than $53,000.
Contacted by Politico about the flights, an Interior spokeswoman offered this: “The swearing in of the Congressman is absolutely an official event, as is emergency management training. Shame on you for not respecting the office of a Member of Congress.”
In September, it was revealed that the former Montana congressman and several staffers had chartered an oil company plane for a flight from Las Vegas to Montana in June, costing taxpayers $12,375. The Washington Post reported that the flight followed a “motivational speech” Zinke had delivered to the Vegas Golden Knights, the city’s new National Hockey League team. Zinke has since acknowledged using what many consider to be private luxury planes on three separate occasions. This includes the trip to Montana, a bipartisan congressional delegation to the Arctic Circle led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and a visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the 100th anniversary of the transition of power from Denmark.
In an advisory letter to the agency’s deputy secretary last month, the government watchdog group said Zinke has failed to keep proper travel records since taking over the department in March. The probe into his use of private planes “has been delayed by absent, or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips,” Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote.
Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt pointed the finger at the Obama administration for any poor record keeping. “When I arrived at the Department in August 2017, it was clear to me that the Secretary and I inherited an organizational and operational mess from the previous Administration,” he wrote in a response letter.