Report finds Interior secretary violated agency travel policies

Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated his agency’s travel policies by having family members travel with him in government vehicles, according to a new report out of the DOI Office of Inspector General.

“We found that Secretary Zinke’s wife and other family members had occasionally ridden with him in government vehicles. While this was not in compliance with DOI policy, the DOI Office of the Solicitor’s Division of General Law approved his immediate family to ride with him in government vehicles on a case-by-case basis,” the report said.

“The Solicitor’s Office employee said her approval of unofficial passengers traveling with Secretary Zinke in government vehicles was based on whether the DOI would incur any costs. If there was no cost, she said, she would approve it.”

In this April 6, 2018, file photo, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks at an offshore winds energy forum in Plainsboro, N.J. An internal Interior Department watchdog says it was unable to determine if dozens of senior employee reassignments under Zinke’s leadership were done legally. (Wayne Parry/AP)
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Findings by the Office of Inspector General follow a backlash over new jobs assigned to almost three-dozen senior employees in the months after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took office last year.

According to the report, the approval also stemmed from Secretary Zinke’s inability to use personal vehicles for travel, and therefore travel with family members without violating agency policy. The passengers with Zinke also reimbursed the government for the cost of their travel.

The report also found that Zinke had asked his security detail to drive a non-government person to the airport after a dinner meeting and was later told not to make such requests.

A security detail also accompanied Zinke and his wife on an August 2017 vacation to Turkey and Greece, and the detail cost the DOI over $25,000.

“This report shows Secretary Zinke’s dogged determination to use his office for personal gain, even going so far as to tell Interior’s top lawyer to lie to the public to justify his wife’s travel," said Center for Western Priorities Executive Director Jen Rokala. "Taxpayers paid $25,000 to send a security detail along on a two-week romantic getaway. He booked a taxpayer-funded cruise to California’s Channel Islands, then claimed his friends and donors were ‘stakeholders’ so they could get a free ride. Secretary Zinke owes the American people an apology — and a refund.”

The report comes at the peak of Interior controversy, where an Oct. 12 email sent by Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson raised speculation that Suzanne Israel Tufts, HUD’s assistant secretary, would be replacing the current acting inspector general at Interior, Mary Kendall.

A political appointee at HUD, Tuft’s potential move, first reported by the Washington Post, would have taken over the Interior OIG at a time with the office had four open investigations into Zinke.

But Health Swift, a senior adviser to Zinke, released a statement Oct. 18 that the Carson email “had false information in it,” and Tufts had only been referred to the White House as a potential candidate for the IG position, which is currently only held in an acting basis.

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