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Ryan Zinke under investigation for taxpayer-funded flights

 (Richard Drew / Associated Press)
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s taxpayer-funded flights on private planes have attracted the attention of federal investigators, who are now investigating whether they were a legitimate government expense.

The department’s Office of Inspector General launched an investigation following news reports late last week that revealed a $12,375 flight Zinke chartered from Las Vegas to an airport near his home in Montana, where he spent the night.

The inspector general's investigation began Friday, the same day Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was forced to resign amid a public outcry over his use of private planes at taxpayer expense.

“We are looking into the secretary’s travel,” the spokeswoman for the inspector general, Nancy DiPaolo, said of the Zinke investigation. “It will likely include modes of transportation, costs and schedules.”

Investigators were driven to launch their probe by news reports detailing Zinke’s travel and complaints they have received.  The probe was first reported by Politico.

The four-hour flight to Montana earlier in the summer enabled Zinke to attend a dinner where he spoke to the Vegas Golden Knights, a new National Hockey League team that is owned by one of Zinke’s most generous political donors. Had he flown on earlier coach flights, airline schedules suggest he would have been able to make it to a routine department event he attended in Nevada and the Montana meeting of the Western Governors Assn. the next day -- but would have missed the dinner with his donor’s team.

Zinke was unapologetic about his travel when he confronted the reports head-on during a speech before the conservative Heritage Foundation on Friday. He called the suggestion that he misused taxpayer resources “a little B.S.”

At the speech, he also revealed two more instances of private plane travel billed to taxpayers. He said in all cases, the charters were needed to make it to his public events. One trip was a bipartisan expedition to the Arctic Circle, and another involved travel between islands of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Zinke said he has also flown on military aircraft to meet wildfire crews, as well as on trips with the president and vice president.

Democrats who demanded the investigation say Zinke has left a lot of questions unanswered. In a letter to the inspector general Monday, the senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), who sits on the committee’s oversight panel, wrote that billing the plane flights to taxpayers may have been a violation of department rules.

“Each of the trips…involved events that may not be taxpayer reimbursable,” they wrote, pointing to various political events Zinke attended during his trips. “Claims that the Secretary’s full schedule required the use of chartered aircraft deserve scrutiny.”

The Democrats urged investigators to look not just at the chartered planes, but all of Zinke’s taxpayer-funded travel, which, according to the letter, includes multiple trips near his homes in Montana and Santa Barbara. They also asked investigators to look at any taxpayer-funded travel by Zinke’s wife to or from Montana, where she is chairing a GOP Senate campaign.

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