Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke chartered a flight from Las Vegas to a location near his Montana home this summer. Internal documents show that the plane is owned by oil and gas executives.
The flight, along with private flights during a trip to the Virgin Islands and a charter to Alaska, could add Zinke to the growing list of names of Cabinet secretaries charging the taxpayers for expensive charters and military planes rather than opting for less expensive commercial flights.
The flight cost taxpayers $12,375, an Interior Department spokeswoman told The Washington Post. Daily commercial flights between the airports Zinke arrived and departed from can run about $300.
According to The Washington Post, Zinke and his staff took a four-hour flight from Las Vegas to Kalispell, Montana, which is a short drive to his home, on a private plane owned by a Wyoming gas and oil exploration firm.
Zinke spent the night at his home in Whitefish, Montana, and spoke at the annual meeting of the Western Governors’ Association the following day.
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift told The Washington Post that Zinke’s charter flights were sanctioned by ethics officials and booked only when practical commercial flights were unavailable.
Swift told The Washington Post that the tickets were paid for by the department.
“The Scheduling Office meets regularly with the Departmental Ethics Office and the Division of General Law to ensure that all travel is thoroughly reviewed and approved in advance,” said Melinda Loftin and Edward Keable, two members of the Interior department’s senior executive service, in a statement to The Washington Post. “In short, the trip - including the Secretary’s address to the hockey developmental squad - was completely compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations.”
Federal Election Records show that Zinke gave a motivational speech in Las Vegas to the Vegas Golden Knights, the city’s new National Hockey League team owned by Bill Foley, chairman of Fidelity National Financial. Employees and political action committees associated with the financial services company donated $199,523 to Zinke’s two congressional campaigns.
“Secretary Zinke’s entire Nevada trip appears to be a flimsy excuse for a political event in Tahoe and a thank-you dinner with his biggest campaign bundler,” Aaron Weiss of the Center for Western Priorities, a nonprofit conservation and advocacy group, told The Washington Post.
“There was no legitimate reason for the secretary to be there in the first place,” Weiss added. “Then he saddles taxpayers with the bill for a private plane when he could have easily flown commercial.”
Zinke was able to get some snorkeling in during his trips to the Caribbean.
Politico, citing department travel records and other documents, said Zinke attended a Virgin Islands Republican Party fundraiser in March where donors paid up to $5,000 per couple for a photograph with the secretary.
On Monday, the Interior Department's watchdog agency said it was probing Zinke's travels after the reports that he had used a private plane owned by an oil executive.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said it was investigating whether he broke the law in June when he gave a speech to a professional hockey team owned by a political donor.
Other Cabinet members have also been scrutinized over their use of taxpayer money for more expensive private travel rather than less expensive commercial trips.
Former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned on Friday following an uproar over his use of costly private charter planes.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt have also come under question over their private plane use.
Questions have also been raised about the cost of security for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos.
Reuters contributed to this report.