Fortified with new powers of access, the Inspector General’s Office at the Interior Department is obtaining records related to Secretary Ryan Zinke’s controversial travel schedule, a probe that recently widened to include the political activities of his wife, Lolita Zinke.
Zinke’s travels, often to his home state of Montana and often in combination with political events, have been under investigation since October. On Nov. 15, Deputy Interior IG Mary Kendall issued an unusual alert informing the secretary’s team of obstacles in receiving documents.
Auditors have “been delayed by absent, or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips and a review process that failed to include proper documentation and accountability,” the alert read. “Although we have received full cooperation from all employees contacted, we have found the documentation and adherence to departmental travel policies deficient and without proper management oversight and accountability.”
Further, the IG found that Interior’s Office of the Solicitor and department ethics officials have a review process that “does not include sufficient documentation of the legal and ethical analysis conducted to distinguish between personal, political, and official travel, or consistent cost analysis to justify use of non-commercial travel.”
The department, which did not respond to Government Executive queries, has asserted that all trips taken by Zinke were properly vetted, with private stops accounted for and the costs of Mrs. Zinke’s trips paid for privately. The possibility of Hatch Act violations is an issue reportedly being probed by the Office of Special Counsel.
As reported last week by the Washington Post, Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, in a letter to the IG, blamed the problems on the Obama administration.
“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,” Bernhardt wrote. “From my perspective . . . it appears that the exact same [travel] procedures and processes utilized by the previous administration remain in place and continue to be dysfunctional.”
He added that he confirmed only last week that Obama Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s records had been made part of the system. (Jewell did not respond to requests for comment.)
The challenges broadened on Monday when Politico reported details on the accompanying travels with the secretary by Lolita Zinke, who goes by Lola and is chairing the Montana Republican campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.
Citing emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the nonprofit Western Values Project, which is highly critical of Zinke’s land use policies, Politico wrote that “Secretary Ryan Zinke's wife has frustrated department staffers by saddling them with extra work when she traveled with her husband on official business. The records document Lola Zinke's last-minute requests to join high-level dinners and additions to the guest list for a conservative group's event near the couple’s home in Southern California earlier this year.”
In a statement to Government Executive, an Interior IG spokeswoman said, “The department has been responsive to our requests,” confirming that the review includes trips out west on which Mrs. Zinke accompanied her husband—the extent of which remains unclear. She also confirmed the deputy secretary’s assertion that “some of the issues with timely processing of secretarial travel vouchers include the previous secretary's travel."
Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, said if Zinke and his wife used taxpayers’ dollars for personal or political travel, that was wrong. "I expect the Department of Interior to provide the requested travel documents to Congress soon. As a former Member of Congress, he should know better and make sure his department carefully and thoroughly maintains clear and transparent records at all times.”
Craig Holman, the government ethics specialist at the liberal-leaning Public Citizen, told Government Executive that Secretary Zinke’s travels “are not such a concern, his wife accompanying him is the concern. She is making appearances at official events with the secretary at the same time she is making her own political career smack dab in the middle of this,” Holman said. Lola Zinke is “closely involved with the Republican National Committee and party functions,” he added. “She has every appearance of using these official trips to spread her influence within networks of major Republican donors.”
Corey Goldstone, spokesperson for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, which filed a complaint against Zinke’s campaign committee in October for failure to report contributions received, on Tuesday said, “Submitting incomplete travel records fits a pattern that Zinke has demonstrated of flouting transparency laws and norms dating back to his campaign for Congress. The public has a right to full disclosure so they know whether Zinke and his wife’s travel is really in the public interest.”
The IG’s alert requested that the secretary’s office provide, by Dec. 11, new documentation such as authorizations, vouchers and reimbursements on travel by both Zinke and his wife, including the vehicles they traveled in and who paid for them. It also asked the department in the longer term to develop a new travel review process and specify a plan for creating it.
“In accordance with the IG Empowerment Act of 2016,” the alert continued, “we will publish this memorandum on our website no later than three days from the date of issue.”