In an advisory letter from the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General to the secretary’s office Wednesday, Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall said her office’s probe into Zinke’s use of private planes “has been delayed by absent, or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips.”
“We have found the documentation and adherence to Departmental travel policies deficient and without proper management oversight and accountability,” she wrote.
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 a private plane on three separate occasions, including 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. But during an energy speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, he shrugged off the controversy as “a little BS.”
Zinke said during the speech that taxpayers “absolutely have the right to know official travel costs” and that the Department of the Interior makes that information available to the public. All of his travel aboard private flights, he added, occurred “only after it was determined by multiple career professionals at the department that no commercial options existed to meet the promulgated schedule.”
“Every time I travel, I submit the travel plan to the ethics department that evaluates it line-by-line to make sure that I am above the law,” he said. (A spokesperson for Interior later clarified to HuffPost that Zinke had meant “within the law.”) “And I follow the law.”
In her memo, Kendall notes that OIG is also looking into travel by Zinke’s wife, Lolita Hand, but has “not been able to determine the full extent to which” she has accompanied the interior secretary on official business. The watchdog group has requested Zinke’s office turn over all appropriate travel documents no later than Dec. 11.
In a response letter Thursday, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt pointed the finger at the Obama administration for any poor record keeping, but said agency staff would continue to cooperate with the investigation and work to provide all requested documents.
“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. “From my perspective, regarding [Immediate Office of the Secretary] travel procedures, it appears that the exact same procedures and processes utilized by the previous Administration remain in place and continue to be dysfunctional.”
Tom Price resigned in late September as President Donald Trump’s secretary of health and human services amid investigations into his frequent use of such flights, which cost taxpayers more than $900,000, according to a series of reports by Politico.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt have also traveled lavishly, with Pruitt’s non-commercial airfare having cost taxpayers more than $58,000, according to reports.