Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his aides have taken several flights on private or military aircraft, including a $12,000 charter plane to take him to events in his hometown in Montana and private flights between two Caribbean islands, according to documents and a department spokeswoman.
Zinke is at least the fourth senior member of the Trump administration to have used non-commercial planes at taxpayer expense, along with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and HHS Secretary Tom Price. President Donald Trump has fumed at Price’s pricey travel, and Democrats say the revelations demonstrate a cavalier attitude by Cabinet members toward excessive spending.
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said Zinke’s charter or military plane trips were booked only after officials were unable to find commercial flights that would accommodate Zinke’s schedule, and that all were “pre-cleared by career officials in the ethics office.” Swift said she had not spoken to Zinke about whether he would reimburse the government for the cost of the flights, as Price plans to do for some of the $400,000 tab he racked up on charter flights.
On June 26, a Beechcraft King Air 200 carried Zinke and several staffers from Las Vegas to Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Mont., about a 20-minute drive from Zinke’s home in Whitefish, according to his official schedule. The flight cost $12,375, Swift said.
Zinke left after speaking at an event for the city’s new professional hockey team, the “Vegas Golden Knights Development Camp Dinner,” according to his schedule. Earlier in the day, he had been in Pahrump, Nev., for an announcement related to public lands.
Zinke’s flight left Las Vegas at 8:30 p.m. PST and landed around 1:30 a.m. MST in Kalispell. The secretary stayed overnight at his residence, Interior documents show.
Las Vegas is one of the main connecting airports for commercial flights to Glacier International. Commercial flights between the two cities are available for several hundred dollars a ticket, according to travel planning websites.
In Whitefish, Zinke attended the Western Governors’ Association’s annual meeting, where he spoke for about 20 minutes without taking questions. He then had a private lunch with association members. In the afternoon Zinke was the subject of a photo shoot with GQ magazine at Lake McDonald and fished while being interviewed by Outside Magazine, the records show.
Zinke and staffers flew commercial back to Washington, D.C., the next day, according to the records.
The trip was not the first in which Interior booked a private jet for Zinke. On March 31, Interior chartered two flights to take Zinke and staff from St. Croix to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands to attend the centennial of the Danish government turning the islands over to the United States. Another two flights were chartered to return to St. Croix later that night.
Swift said she did not know how much the flights cost but that no other arrangements were available.
Commercial flights between the two islands generally run a few hundred dollars, according to travel booking websites.
In May, Zinke and his wife, Lolita, used a military aircraft to travel to Norway. From there, they flew on a military plane to Alaska for events organized by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The trip included charter planes to travel within Alaska, a common occurrence in the large, remote state. The Zinkes paid for Lolita’s share of the trip, the full cost of which was not immediately available, Swift said.
Zinke also took a military helicopter from Fort Bliss to review the Organ Mountains monument in New Mexico in June, and he used a Bureau of Land Management helicopter to review the Basin and Range National Monument on July 30. “It is difficult to survey a half-million-acre piece of land with few roads by foot or car in an hour and a half,” Swift said.
Along with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Zinke took a military plane to Ravalli County, Mont., to check on wildfires in the area in August. “The military plane was used because of a very tight travel window, with no viable commercial airline options to transport two secretaries, security details, and associated USDA, Forest Service and Interior staff to Missoula in the time required,” said USDA spokesman Tim Murtaugh. The cost of the flight was not immediately available, but the two agencies plan to reimburse the Air Force, Murtaugh said.
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