Dems Urge Republicans to Conduct Meaningful Oversight as Inspector General Finds Sec. Zinke Took Flight for Personal Reasons

Washington, D.C. – Ranking Member Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), ranking member of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, said today that Republicans in Congress need to conduct more careful oversight of Trump administration officials in the wake of a Department of the Interior Office of Inspector General (OIG) report finding that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent taxpayer funds on a chartered flight for personal reasons unconnected to his official duties. The finding, the lawmakers say, confirms the growing public fear that Trump officials use government resources to enrich or entertain themselves without oversight from Republicans in Congress.

Zinke took a late-night chartered flight from Nevada to Montana in June 2017 after giving a motivational speech to a political donor’s minor league Las Vegas hockey team – a speech in which, by his own admission, Zinke focused on his career as a Navy SEAL and never discussed the Department of the Interior (DOI). Despite widespread media reports on flagrant Trump administration misuses of public money, Republicans in Congress have refused to ask Zinke any questions about the Las Vegas trip or to conduct oversight of the administration’s multiple other scandals.

As the OIG report found, neither Zinke nor his staff provided key pieces of information about the trip to DOI ethics officers that would have allowed them to make a fully informed decision to grant or deny the chartered flight request. The report found that had ethics officials known that Zinke had no intention of talking about DOI or his mission as secretary, they “likely would not have approved [the Las Vegas speech] as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight.” Had they known the speech was made for a former campaign donor, the OIG found, they would have looked more closely at the rationale for Zinke’s trip.

The OIG report calls into question why Zinke misrepresented his intentions in making the speech in the first place:

After reviewing a video of Zinke’s speech to the Golden Knights, [DOI ethics officer Melinda] Loftin acknowledged that the speech was not what she had expected Zinke to talk about. Although [Zinke spokeswoman Heather] Swift has stated to the media that the attendees were a “key audience” of the DOI, Loftin noted that Zinke never mentioned the DOI or his role as Secretary in the speech and that the speech itself concentrated on his experience as a Navy SEAL. Loftin said that the speech was “sort of an inspirational-type speech, one that a coach might give either before a game [or] during the locker room at halftime,” and that it had “no tie” to the DOI. “It certainly should have been tied to the Department of the Interior and in some way reflective of our mission,” she said, for it to qualify as an official event.

Grijalva and McEachin said that, given the multiple scandals and ethical conflicts Zinke currently faces, he has lost the benefit of the doubt and needs closer congressional scrutiny.

“Secretary Zinke ignores the rules when it suits him, and Republicans in Congress have shown no interest in conducting any oversight of his highly controversial tenure,” Grijalva said today. “People in federal leadership positions are supposed to set a higher standard than this, and Congress is supposed to enforce that standard. Instead Republicans in Washington have aided and abetted Secretary Zinke’s embarrassing behavior every step of the way. He needs to stop treating federal resources as his personal fiefdom.”

“The Office of Inspector General has determined that Secretary Zinke’s expensive, five-figure charter flight 'could have been avoided.' The Department of the Interior must be responsible and frugal with taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars,” Rep. McEachin said. “This Cabinet and administration needs to end these frivolous luxury expenses and, like all Americans, make prudent and penny-wise financial decisions.”

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