Another Trump cabinet official, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, is under investigation for mixing official business with pleasure after it was revealed he attended fundraisers at a weekend ski trip and Alaskan steakhouse.
Cabinet officials’ travel has been under scrutiny since now-disgraced Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was found to have taken private jets costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel that mixed personal and official business. When it comes to Zinke, it’s not just the cost of travel that’s raising eyebrows.
Less than three weeks after he was sworn in, Zinke attended a March political fundraiser at a Big Sky, Montana ski resort where donors paid up to $3,000 a head to attend, Politico reported. During a separate trip for official business in May, Zinke attended another political fundraiser, this time at a steakhouse in Anchorage, Alaska.
The Hatch Act forbids federal officials like Zinke from participating in partisan political activities while using government resources, something Bush-era White House ethics chief Richard Painter was happy to point out.
But it’s not just the fundraisers getting Zinke into trouble — in June, Zinke chartered a four-hour flight from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana on a private plane owned by the executives of a Wyoming oil-and-gas exploration firm costing taxpayers $12,375, The Washington Post reported.
Commercial flights on that day between the two airports cost as little as $300.
A spokeswoman said the flights were OK’d by ethics officials and said private flights are only used when commercial flights are unavailable, though she did not supply the Post with documentation confirming the approvals.
But Zinke’s reason for travel could be the bigger issue. He was in Las Vegas to give a motivational speech to the Vegas Golden Knights, the city’s new National Hockey League team, which is owned by Bill Foley, chairman of Fidelity National Financial — employees and political action committees associated with the firm have donated more than $199,523 to Zinke’s two congressional campaigns, the Post reported.
The official business was an appearance in a rural Nevada town where Zinke announced a routine local funding grant from Congress.
“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 Post. “There was no legitimate reason for the secretary to be there in the first place. Then he saddles taxpayers with the bill for a private plane when he could have easily flown commercial.”
Zinke’s travel is under investigation by both the Office of Special Counsel and the Interior Department’s inspector general.