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Interior Department Watchdog: Zinke Family Travel Violated Department Policies

Politics
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. William Campbell / Corbis / Getty Images

The internal watchdog of the Department of the Interior (DOI) concluded Thursday that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke violated department travel policies by having his family members ride in government vehicles, The Hill reported.


The report, by the DOI's Office of Inspector General (OIG) also confirmed that Zinke and his wife Lolita cost taxpayers more than $25,000 when they travelled through Greece and Turkey with a Park Police security detail, though there were no policies against them doing so.

"Being exposed for abusing his power to rip-off the taxpayer while benefiting himself provides all the proof that should be needed to fire Ryan Zinke," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement following the report.

Zinke has been a controversial Interior Secretary because of his pro-oil and gas drilling stance and his dubious ethical behavior, including a conflict of interest with oil-giant Halliburton. There are three other investigations underway within the DOI into his actions in office, The Guardian reported.

The report found that Zinke had brought his wife with him on department boat travel, with a sign off from the DOI's solicitor general's office, but that on other occasions the Zinke family had reimbursed the DOI for family travel. It also found that Zinke's staff looked into making Lolita a volunteer, apparently in order to get around travel restrictions, though Zinke denies that was the reason. She was not eventually given volunteer status.

The report further found that Zinke took non-government guests on a National Park Service boat through the Channel Islands in California, including two who had hosted a fundraiser for Zinke's 2014 Congressional bid and one whose family had owned property in the islands. At the time, they were classified as "stakeholders," so weren't asked to reimburse the department, but ethics officials at the time were not aware of their ties to Zinke's campaign or the land they were viewing, The Hill reported.

Interior spokesperson Heather Swift said the report largely showed that Zinke had not done anything wrong.

"The Inspector General report proves what we have known all along: the secretary follows all relevant laws and regulations and that all of his travel was reviewed and approved by career ethics officials and solicitors prior to travel," she said.

But the Sierra Club cast doubt on that interpretation, saying that Zinke was merely shifting the blame.

"Even Scott Pruitt resigned before he could be fired, but Zinke doesn't even have that sense of decency," Brune said. Zinke is selling-out our public lands to corporate polluters, using his power to enrich himself, and ripping off the public by wasting their tax dollars. It's time Donald Trump fires Ryan Zinke, not give him a chance to engage in a Washington cover-up."

The report came the same day that Interior officials denied reports from Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that a Trump appointee from HUD, Suzanne Israel Tufts, was headed to DOI to lead the Inspector General's Office, The Hill reported.

Good government advocates had worried that a political appointee could interfere with the integrity of the investigations into Zinke currently underway.

"Why replace an acting Inspector General with a political appointee who has no government oversight experience?" Director of Public Policy with the Project on Government Oversight Elizabeth Hempowicz asked The Washington Post.

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