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'UGH!': Zinke's wife's travel caused headaches for Interior staff

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s wife has frustrated department staffers by saddling them with extra work when she traveled with her husband on official business, according to new records that a liberal watchdog group says uncover the potential misuse of government resources.

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. The Western Values Project filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit last month to force Interior to release more than 100 pages of documents related to Lola Zinke’s trips with her husband and interactions with Interior staff.

Shared first with POLITICO, the documents shed new light on the outsize profile Lola Zinke has established compared with the typical Cabinet secretary’s spouse, including her dictating which people to invite to a town hall hosted by the conservative Young America’s Foundation for her husband.

New emails also reveal a celebratory dinner the Zinkes attended that was organized in part by a major GOP donor who gave heavily to Ryan Zinke’s congressional campaigns. And they show Interior staffers had to accommodate a last-minute request for her to join the secretary at an official dinner with Alaska’s governor. The records cover two trips Lola Zinke joined in the first three months of her husband’s tenure as well as some other interactions with Interior staff, such as coordinating her attendance at a White House briefing for Cabinet members’ spouses.

While the department says Lola Zinke paid her own way, the records show Interior used staff time to coordinate some of her activities while traveling with her husband. And the trips gave her access to high-level politicians and GOP activists and donors who could benefit her as a political operator in her own right.

“These emails show that the leadership at the Department of Interior treats basic ethical standards like an inconvenience,” Western Values Project Executive Director Chris Saeger said. “If Secretary Zinke is willing to be so sloppy with something as elementary as this, then God only knows how they’re handling big decisions about energy and public lands behind closed doors.”

Interior says Lola Zinke pays her own way when she accompanies her husband and that travel is cleared by ethics officials in advance.

“DOI incurred no expenses due to Mrs. Zinke’s presence” with the secretary, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email Friday.

Interior’s inspector general and the independent Office of Special Counsel are investigating the former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL’s travel expenses and appearances at political events while on official trips, including those in which he was accompanied by his wife. Last week, the IG’s office said it could not conduct a thorough investigation because Interior had kept inadequate records. Among other problems, the watchdog said it had “not been able to determine the full extent to which Lolita Zinke, the Secretary’s wife, accompanied the Secretary on official travel.” Interior officials blamed the shortcomings on inadequate procedures left in place by the Obama administration.

The new records show the secretary’s wife helped decide the guest list for a Young America’s Foundation town hall forum with Ryan Zinke on April 17 at its Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, California, part of a weeklong official trip in the state. Lola Zinke joined her husband for national parks tours and meetings with government officials throughout the week, as well as for a private tour of the Reagan Ranch galleries led by Andrew Coffin, YAF’s vice president.

Lola Zinke sent a “list of people I have invited to the event” to two Interior staffers, according to a series of April 7 emails. Caroline Boulton, a special assistant to the secretary, forwarded the list to an official at YAF, with a warning that more could be added. Interior redacted the names of Zinke’s guests before releasing the email.

“She’s expecting some of them to bring plus ones and also her list is not yet final,” Boulton wrote. “She’s said that she doesn’t have emails for them all since many of them have been personally told about the event, but I wanted you to have the list!”

YAF is a key pillar of the conservative movement with alumni ranging from White House officials to prominent journalists. The group’s donors have reportedly included the Koch brothers, among others.

Lola Zinke is active in conservative politics. The Santa Barbara native was a member of President Donald Trump’s Hispanic outreach team during the 2016 campaign, and in September she became chairwoman for the Senate campaign of Troy Downing, a Montana businessman hoping to unseat Sen. Jon Tester next year.

Lola had previously faced criticism for accompanying her husband on the California trip. She posted a photograph on Twitter from Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and accompanied her husband to meetings with DOI regional staff in Sacramento and trips to Fresno and the national parks at Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, the trip manifests show.

The trip also included five days in Santa Barbara and then four days in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, an upscale part of the state where the couple owns a home and other real estate.

The secretary taking his wife on official trips isn’t illegal as long as the government doesn’t pay for her expenses. But it can be an ethically gray area, depending on the circumstances, said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with good-governance watchdog Public Citizen.

“Spousal travel, especially when paid for by the spouse, suggests that the trip may have less to do with official duties and more resembles a family vacation partially paid for by taxpayers,” Holman said.

When Lola Zinke joined an official trip to Norway, Greenland and Alaska, she appears to have caused some headaches by deciding to stay longer than expected. Ryan Zinke sent his staff scrambling to make last-minute arrangements so she could accompany him to dinner with the governor of Alaska and other dignitaries in Anchorage, according to new emails.

Interior staffers apparently found out about the change in plans second-hand from an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who also was on the trip, along with other senators and their spouses, according to a May 27 email from Director of Scheduling and Advance Russell Roddy to other colleagues at Interior — one day before Lola Zinke had been scheduled to return to Washington.

“I have heard that Mrs. Zinke was now maybe not going to fly out from Fairbanks Sunday morning … so, I asked Annie if she happened to talk to Mrs. Zinke about her plans. She said Mrs. Zinke said she was now going to head to Byers Lake and Anchorage with RKZ and fly out of Anchorage on Tuesday,” Roddy wrote. “UGH! We have all kinds of planes, trains and automobiles manifests to now scramble with.”

It is unclear what led to the change in plans. Before the trip, Lola Zinke had apparently been trying to secure a seat on a military plane back to Washington, but the Senate staffer coordinating the trip told Interior that it would be a “safer bet” for her to fly commercial because Ryan Zinke would not be with her. The military typically does not like members of Congress trying to get their spouses on military planes without the member being present, according to an email from Boulton relaying guidance she had received. “There’s a lot of ifs in that, so let me know if you want me to keep pushing on the” military return flight, Boulton wrote to Lola Zinke on May 18.

Lola Zinke joined her husband at a May 29 dinner in Anchorage with Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and other state officials.

“The Secretary personally paid the State of Alaska for Mrs. Zinke’s meal,” Swift said. Lola Zinke flew home on a commercial flight from Anchorage the next day.

Lola Zinke also accompanied her husband to an April 10 dinner in Washington that was organized with the help of one of his past campaign donors, television producer Burt Sugarman, who has donated heavily to Republicans.

“We are very excited that Sec Zinke accepted the event,” wrote Phil Anderson, president of lobbying firm Navigators Global who helped organize the April 10 dinner sponsored by the National Geographic Society, in a March 24 email to Boulton. “As you know, Burt Sugarman first discussed the dinner with Sec Zinke.”

Sugarman and his wife, former “Entertainment Tonight” anchor Mary Hart, are members of the National Geographic Society’s board of directors.

The Sugarmans gave a combined $10,800 to Zinke’s 2016 congressional campaign, out of more than $180,000 they gave to GOP candidates and committees in the past election cycle, according to FEC documents.

On April 27, Lola Zinke was invited to an ethics briefing at the White House for Cabinet spouses. “They stressed the importance of attending since important ethics rules will [be] discussed and questions can be answered by White House counsel,” Boulton wrote in an email to Lola Zinke.

“Thank you!” she replied. “It’s a good thing I’ll be in town then.”

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