Interior Dept. watchdog finds Zinke's private flights followed rules, but some cost could have been avoided

The department says the report confirms Zinke's private flights followed rules.

The Interior Department's internal watchdog says that charter flights taken by Secretary Ryan Zinke did not violate any laws, but that the department could have avoided some of the cost in an interim report published Tuesday.

The department's inspector general found that three flights on private or military planes taken by Zinke generally followed the relevant rules and were all approved by ethics officials in advance. But the report found that the cost of at least one of the trips, a more than $12,000 flight from Las Vegas to Montana, could have been avoided.

In a letter to Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt last month the inspector general's office wrote that "we question the $12,375 cost for a chartered flight to give a 12-minute speech with no nexus to the DOI."

In his response, Bernhardt said he was concerned about that "glib" suggestion and that the report did include all the relevant information, although the department has made some changes to its approval process.

The department spent an additional $100,000 for four flights on Air Force One that Zinke actually took.

Some cabinet members have been cleared of wrongdoing by these audits, like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin whose flights cost more than $800,000. An audit of his travel found that the secretary did not violate any laws.

A report by the Department of Veterans' Affairs inspector general found that former Secretary David Shulkin spent more than $120,000 on a trip to Europe that mostly include sightseeing with his wife. He has since been forced to resign.

The Interior Department's internal watchdog released an interim report on its audit of Zinke's travel Monday addressing his use of charter flights. The inspector general is still looking into other questions about his travel, including the use of department vehicles.

An Interior Department spokesperson said Monday that all of the secretary's travel is approved by career officials in advance and that the report confirms that all of the flights followed proper procedure.

"This report said exactly what was known all along: The use of chartered aircraft ‘followed relevant law, policy, rules, and regulations. The uses and purposes of the flights also appeared reasonable for official DOI business,’" department spokeswoman Heather Swift said in a statement. "Additionally, the report shows that in every instance reviewed, the secretary’s staff consulted with and sought prior approval from the career ethics officials and travel lawyers, and that we follow their expert advice."

But the inspector general found that ethics officials did not have all the information about the $12,000 flight when they approved it and that department staff did not do enough to minimize the cost.

In a letter in response to the findings, Bernhardt said he thought the review did not take into account all of Zinke's official business on the trip, including meetings with department employees and local leaders. He also said that staff planning the trip asked if they could change the time of Zinke's speech to the Western Governor's Association the next day but that the WGA denied the request.

Bernhardt said in the letter that the department has made some changes to the process of approving travel, including increasing resources and staff in the ethics department.

In addition to the secretary's travel, there have also been questions about the cost of travel for Zinke's wife, Lolita, when she accompanied him on official trips. The inspector general told the department last year that the inquiry into the cost of the secretary's travel was delayed because of "absent or incomplete documentation," which a top department official attributed to organizational issues at the department that predate the current administration.

The agency's watchdog released another report last week where the inspector general found that there were not enough documents to determine if reassignments of senior officials at the department complied with the law. Several of the employees that were reassigned said they believed it was in retaliation for their work in areas like climate change.