Zinke vows to continue charter travel; no plans to repay

By Jennifer Yachnin | 09/29/2017 01:21 PM EDT

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke at the Heritage Foundation this morning.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke at the Heritage Foundation this morning. Heritage Foundation

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke today addressed revelations about his use of charter and military flights while in office, lashing out at critics over what he called "a little B.S. on travel."

Ahead of a scheduled policy address at the Heritage Foundation, Zinke spent several minutes defending his use of noncommercial airlines on three occasions since being sworn into office.

"Before we get started, I’d just like to address, in the words of Gen. [Norman] Schwarzkopf, a little B.S. on travel," Zinke said.


Climatewire reported today that Zinke took a charter flight from Las Vegas to Montana in late June after speaking to a political donor’s professional hockey team in Nevada. Taxpayers were billed $12,375 for the flight on Choice Aviation LLC (Climatewire, Sept. 29).

Zinke defended that flight, as well as two other charter flights involving travel in the Arctic with the Senate Natural Resources Committee and between St. Croix and St. Thomas of the U.S. Virgin Islands, noting the agency’s ethics office had approved each of the trips.

"I believe taxpayers absolutely have the right to know official travel costs: It’s common sense, and at the department we make those documents and my travel schedule available to everyone," Zinke said. "Using tax dollars wisely and ethically is a great responsibility and is at the good heart of good government.

"There are times, however, we have to utilize charter services because we often travel in areas and under circumstances that we don’t have other flight options," added Zinke, who also defended his use of military flights to view wildfires in Montana with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

The Choice Aviation flight from Nevada to Montana made use of a company with which Interior’s Office of Aviation Services held a contract. The firm normally assists with wildfire suppression and surveying wildlife in remote areas.

Zinke went on to assert he will continue to use charter or military flights when needed.

"I intend to continue flying in the benefit and on official duties," Zinke said. "And all of this travel was done only after it was determined by multiple career professionals at the department that no commercial options existed to meet the promulgated schedule."

Zinke later added: "Every time I travel, I submit the travel plan to the ethics department that examines it line by line to make sure that I am above the law. And I follow the law."

A number of Trump administration officials have come under scrutiny in recent days for their use of private air travel, particularly as the White House presses for budget cuts at those same agencies.

Although Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — following criticism from Trump himself — vowed yesterday to repay the government for his seat on a number of charter flights, no other official has followed suit.

An Interior Department spokeswoman confirmed Zinke has no plans to repay taxpayers for his official travel, noting all trips were approved by the agency’s ethics office and office of general law.

"The secretary’s official government travel is paid for by the department like other secretaries before him," said spokeswoman Heather Swift.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, today disparaged Zinke for using the Choice Aviation charter flight.

"This administration tells us there’s no money for Medicare, Medicaid, public education or enforcing environmental standards, but there’s plenty for them taking twelve-thousand-dollar flights instead of sitting in coach," Grijalva said in a statement.

Michael Doyle contributed to this report.