IG Faults Zinke for Violating Travel Rules as Interior Denies It's Ousting Watchdog

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks to the press outside the White House in August. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks to the press outside the White House in August. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke broke with agency policy by allowing family members to travel with him in government vehicles and did not inform ethics officials that two individuals accompanying him on an official trip had previously hosted a fundraiser for him, according to a new inspector general report.

Zinke flouted Interior rules by repeatedly allowing his wife, Lolita, and other family members to travel in government vehicles with him, though the appropriate Interior channels approved the travel in advance. The IG has not yet released the report publicly, but it was obtained by The Washington Post. The secretary also asked department employees to “research the legal and ethical implications” of bringing his wife on as a volunteer. The employees advised Zinke against it, and Lolita did not become a volunteer. The secretary denied that his motivation for asking was to enable his wife to travel with him without having to reimburse the government.

Ed McDonnell, alternate designate ethics official at Interior, had a different perception last year when he was discussing the possibility of Lolita joining Interior.

“We’re spending taxpayer dollars trying to figure out if she can be a volunteer so that he doesn’t have to pay [the reimbursements],” McDonnell wrote in his notes of a May 2017 meeting.

Zinke had proposed Lolita serve as Interior ombudsman, a position department spokeswoman Heather Swift described as a liaison between the department and families of employees. Lolita served in a similar role at the Navy when her husband was on active duty.

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An employee in the Solicitor’s Office told the IG that she regularly advised Zinke’s schedulers Lolita was not permitted to travel in her husband’s government vehicle and that it would be “cleanest” and “lowest risk” if she traveled separately. The employee approved the travel, however, because it was of no added cost to the government. Deputy Solicitor Edward Keable and Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt both said Zinke was not beholden to internal agency rules so long as he complied with regulations and laws.

In cases in which Lolita’s travel did cost the government money, the Zinkes provided reimbursement. In July, Interior changed its policy to allow for the secretary’s spouse to travel in government vehicles. Bernhardt said this has eliminated the inconsistency between written policy and actual practices.  

When traveling to the Channel Islands in California, Zinke invited two non-Interior employees who had hosted a fundraiser for his 2014 congressional campaign. The secretary told his travel approvers that the individuals were “stakeholders” with subject matter expertise, but a Solicitor’s Office employee and an ethics attorney both said they had no knowledge the attendees had hosted the fundraiser. Zinke called his political history with the individuals “immaterial.”

Zinke once had his security detail drive a non-government employee to the airport, but was later told that was improper and has not done it since. The IG noted that Zinke’s security detail accompanied him and his family while on a personal vacation in Turkey and Greece. The investigators said Zinke did not specifically request the security and it did not violate any rules, but it cost the department more than $25,000.

In a letter to the IG, Bernhardt, the deputy secretary, said Zinke made clear from his first day in office he planned to listen to the advice of the department’s ethics teams. He said spousal travel with the secretary was a “longstanding reality” predating Zinke and stressed that he had always sought appropriate advice and permission.

Zinke’s critics were not so forgiving.

“Just like [former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator] Scott Pruitt, Zinke thinks the rules don't apply to him," said Randi Spivak, public lands director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “His cavalier attitude about taxpayer-funded travel is matched by his contempt for the environmental well-being of the public lands he's turning over to extractive industries. This guy has no respect for the public's money or our natural heritage"

The report comes as Interior has faced controversy surrounding its inspector general. Mary Kendall has been the department’s acting IG for nine years, but Housing and Urban Development Department Secretary Ben Carson told his employees in a recent email one of his top employees, Assistant HUD Secretary for the Office of Administration Suzanne Israel Tufts, was moving over to Interior to take over as temporary inspector general. The news particularly ruffled feathers among Interior watchdogs because of the IG’s investigations into Zinke’s conduct, some of which are still ongoing.

The announcement came as a surprise to Kendall, and Interior has since clarified that Carson was mistaken. HUD officials did not respond to inquiries asking to explain the miscommunication.

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